Last week, President Biden announced that the United States will maintain the same cap on refugee entries as the previous fiscal year — a maximum of 125,000 people. That’s a stark and welcome contrast to the Trump administration’s approach to dealing with the many displacement crises unfolding around the world, which was to essentially shut out as many people seeking refuge as possible by bringing the cap down to a historic low of 15,000 per year. But while Biden’s commitment to admitting more refugees than his predecessor is certainly a step in the right direction, his administration’s record on the issue still leaves much room for concern.
Just look at the numbers. Last year, after lifting the cap on refugees to 125,000, the United States processed fewer than 20,000 people through the Refugee Admissions Program. That’s an abysmally low number in any given year, but it’s especially so when looked at against the backdrop of a global population of at least 100 million people forcibly displaced from their homes by war, famine, and climate change, according to the UN. Now, as the world anticipates a rising global refugee population in coming years, the United States finds itself far from prepared.
That’s why the Biden administration must prioritize rebuilding the Refugee Admissions Program. With more resources than any other country, the United States has a unique responsibility to live up to its own promise and provide a permanent home for the growing number of people fleeing disasters. But it has so far failed to do that. In fact, from 2016 to 2020, the number of refugees admitted to the United States saw a precipitous 86 percent decline.
The reality is that kicking the can down the road seldom leads to optimal outcomes. And this is no exception. Indeed, the Biden administration’s apparent lack of urgency about fixing the refugee admissions process will only exacerbate America’s immigration problems in the not-so-distant future.
Take, for example, the US government’s approach to dealing with refugees fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Instead of expediting the excruciatingly slow refugee resettlement application processes, the United States granted tens of thousands of refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine what is known as “parole” status. While that allows people a stay in the United States, it’s only temporary — up to two years.
That may have been a useful stopgap measure given the scale of the crises, but it will also prove to be shortsighted if it’s not coupled with a long-term plan. When refugees are admitted on parole status, they are not given the same resources that are available to those who are brought in officially as refugees. More importantly, it does not grant them the right to pursue a green card or US citizenship. (Of the nearly 100,000 Ukrainian refugees admitted into the United States through the various immigration programs, only about 500 of them have actually entered through the refugee system.)
What happens to the people on parole status once their approved stay in the country expires? In all likelihood, many of them will remain in the country and suffer the consequences of being undocumented, especially as backlogs to the refugee admission program grow. So long as the situations in Ukraine and Afghanistan continue to be dangerous, what other choice would those refugees have?
In order to prevent that from happening, the Biden administration must increase staffing in the departments overseeing refugee resettlement programs, including Homeland Security, State, and Health and Human Services. Coupled with investing in support centers to help refugees navigate the bureaucracy, that would help expedite the arduous and long process of obtaining refugee status. At the end of the 2021 fiscal year, for example, when the United States admitted only about 11,000 refugees, there were some 90,000 people who had been prescreened but were awaiting their interviews with US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
While there may be plenty of reasons why the Biden administration fell so far below its refugee ceiling — from inheriting a decimated Refugee Admissions Program to the many COVID disruptions — there is no excuse to continue going down this path. When Biden first raised the cap from Trump’s low 15,000 limit, he said, “It is important to take this action today to remove any lingering doubt in the minds of refugees around the world who have suffered so much, and who are anxiously waiting for their new lives to begin.” The United States, he added, has a “commitment to protect the most vulnerable.”
It’s now nearly two years into his presidency. So why are so many of them still waiting?
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