The US is rebuilding a legal path for refugees. The elections could change that.

By | April 3, 2024

As national attention turns to the chaos at the southern border, President Joe Biden has been steadily rebuilding a legal route for immigration that was gutted during the Trump administration.

The United States admitted more than 40,000 refugees into the country in the first five months of the budget year after putting them through a rigorous, often years-long screening process, including security and medical vetting and interviews with U.S. officers abroad.

This figure represents a significant expansion of the refugee program, which is at the heart of U.S. laws that provide desperate people from around the world a legal way to find safe haven in the United States.

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The United States has not granted refugee status to so many people in more than seven years. The Biden administration is now on track to admit 125,000 refugees this year, the highest number in three decades, White House spokesman Angelo Fernández Hernández said.

By comparison, about 64,000 refugees were admitted during the last three years of the Trump administration.

“The Biden administration has been talking a lot about resettling more refugees since Biden took office,” said Julia Gelatt, deputy director at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. “We are finally seeing the payout in higher numbers.”

But as the presidential campaign progresses, immigration advocates fear the gains will be reversed Donald Trump I selected. The former president has pledged to suspend the program if he returns to power, just as he did for 120 days in 2017.

Trump has characterized the program as a security threat, even though refugees undergo extensive background checks and screening. He reappointed officers, closed overseas posts and reduced the number of refugees entering the country each year.

The result, when Biden took office, was a system without resources.

“The refugee program is at stake in this election,” said Barbara Strack, former chief refugee officer at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The refugee program has received far less attention than the country’s asylum system, which is buckling under the weight of millions of newcomers at the southern border.

The paths to applying for asylum and refugee status are separate. Potential refugees apply for the program abroad and wait there during the screening process. Those seeking asylum ask for it when they enter U.S. territory, and their claims must then weave their way through a backlogged immigration court system.

Biden has taken a tougher stance on asylum in recent months as he faces mounting pressure to bring some order to the southern border.

‘Just like my birthday’

The refugee program has historically had strong bipartisan support, in part because it was seen as the “right way” to come to the United States.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said at a congressional hearing last year that the process for the refugee program was “good.” He said he did not view the program as a “substantial” security risk and said the program’s robust controls contrasted with the chaos seen at the southern border.

Yet some of that bipartisan support has eroded as the number of people crossing the southern border has reached record levels. Trump has made his anti-immigrant platform a hallmark of his political identity as he calls for cutting off the country from immigrants — both legal and illegal.

But for people like Machar Malith Geu, who lived most of his life in a refugee camp in Kenya, the chance to come to the United States felt like his only hope for the future.

It took six years, but his application for resettlement in the US was approved and he arrived here in February. His new home is in Wichita, Kansas.

“When I was accepted to come to the United States of America, it felt like it was my birthday again because I knew I was leaving the life of a refugee behind,” said Geu, whose family fled some in the 1990s is now South Sudan.

Geu, 33, said he didn’t think about going to the U.S.-Mexico border and crossing illegally. In recent years, the southern border has seen an increase in migration from African countries including Mauritania, Senegal and Angola.

“I never dared to come to America or anywhere illegally,” he said. All he hoped for, he said, was “to stay alive.”

Now he has applied for a work permit and wants to become a security guard before bringing his wife and three daughters to the US. While he waits, he has found solace playing pickup basketball with refugees from Sudan and Congo.

After refugees are approved for resettlement, the U.S. government provides funding for cultural orientation classes and connects them with local groups that help them get on their feet with job training, food and housing.

Refugees must apply for a green card within one year of arriving in the United States. Later they can get American citizenship.

Reconstruction

The Biden administration inherited a program that was stripped to the bare bones during the Trump years.

Trump repeatedly warned that refugees posed a threat. He said at a rally in Minnesota in 2020 that refugees were coming from “the most dangerous places in the world, including Yemen, Syria and your favorite country, Somalia, right?”

At one point, Trump allowed states and cities to refuse to accept refugees, a move later blocked in federal court.

The International Rescue Committee said, contrary to Trump’s claims, that “the hardest way to come to the US is as a refugee.”

“Refugees are subject to more intense scrutiny than any other group attempting to enter the US,” the group said in a statement. “Anyone who wants to come here must first be registered by the United Nations refugee agency, which identifies the families most in need. The U.S. then hand-selects each person admitted.”

By the end of his administration, Trump had lowered the “refugee cap,” or the maximum number of refugees who could be admitted in a single budget year, to 18,000 in 2020 and a proposed low of 15,000 in 2021.

Because funding for local programs is tied to that amount, the money quickly dried up.

Many organizations that help resettle refugees have been forced to close their doors. The officer corps handling refugee interviews dropped from about 170 to 107 by the end of the Trump administration, according to government data.

“I felt quite demoralized,” Sandra Vines, senior director of refugee resettlement at the International Rescue Committee, said of the Trump years. “I felt like I came into the office every day and there was another administrative attack on the program. We called it death by a thousand pieces of paper.”

The pandemic also contributed to low refugee admissions in the early years of the Biden administration. In the 2021 budget year, which included part of the Trump administration, the US admitted just over 11,000 refugees. The following year more than 25,000 attended.

The Biden administration has been working to rebuild the infrastructure for the program. About 150 refugee resettlement offices have been opened across the country, and the number of refugee agents conducting interviews has also increased.

Signs of a more robust refugee program began to emerge last year, when more than 60,000 refugees entered the country. It was a far cry from the 125,000 limit Biden set, but it proved the program was handling more cases.

In addition to the additional resources, the Biden administration has streamlined processing and opened so-called Safe Mobility Offices in Colombia, Guatemala, Ecuador and Costa Rica to help take migrant applications and expand refugee processing from the region.

“A lot of people wanted to see the higher attendance numbers sooner, but I think when you understand what it takes to make a program successful, that hope was not realistic,” Strack said.

“We are only now seeing the fruits of all the work.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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