The United States, despite its size and wealth, consistently fails to do its part in upholding the terms of an international convention it helped create to protect people fleeing persecution. Contrary to domestic anti-immigrant rhetoric from some, the United States actually takes in a tiny fraction of the world’s refugees. In part, this is due to confusion and conflation of refugees and asylum seekers or other immigration processes — a nuanced issue, which we discuss herein, that politicians gloss over despite growing public support for humane immigration policies.
As President Joe Biden seeks to balance political interests and American values when setting refugee resettlement numbers, it is useful to bear in mind the urgent humanitarian concerns that gave rise to the consensus enshrined in international law, U.S. law, and the refugee admissions process.
Following the horrors of two World Wars, the international community created the United Nations and, among other human rights treaties, the U.N. Convention on Refugees and its Protocol. The aim of these treaties was clear — to protect people fleeing persecution and never again turn away those seeking safety. Countries including the United States had refused admission to Jews fleeing Germany in the runup to WW II, and many who were forced to return died at the hands of the Nazis. Despite consensus on the need for protection and ratification of these important documents, the U.S. falls far short of giving effect to their purpose.
Since the start of the modern resettlement program through the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States has welcomed about 100,000 refugees per year through annual bipartisan-supported admissions. Under the Trump administration, this figure dropped to historic lows, despite record numbers of displaced people worldwide. During the last fiscal year, the United States agreed to take only 15,000 refugees.
Until very recently, Biden had consistently pledged to reverse the Trump administration’s cuts and raise the limit of refugees to be accepted for resettlement from 15,000 to 62,500 for FY21, and to return to historic averages thereafter. But on April 16, the Biden administration briefly appeared poised to break that pledge, announcing that it would instead retain the Trump administration caps, presumably to calm conservative angst over migrants at the southern U.S. border. After swift and outraged backlash from many Democrats and immigrant rights groups, Biden quickly reversed course and promised to issue revised numbers by May 15.
Refugees and a Recommitment to Human Rights
On May 3, the president announced the expected 62,500 numbers, and reiterated the goal of reaching 125,000 in the next fiscal year. But the recent wavering, combined with his already significant delays in issuing revised numbers, has raised concerns about whether the United States will truly begin to remedy its failures on refugee admissions. Biden has the opportunity — and has promised — to recommit to human rights. Doing so should entail not only returning to historic numbers, but surpassing them to reach limits the U.S. is capable of hosting.
A refugee is defined as any person who is outside their country of origin who has a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of their race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group. Under the Refugee Convention, which has been codified in U.S. law under the Refugee Act and the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the United States agreed to welcome refugees who have been processed outside the country. The U.S. also agrees, under the convention, to establish appropriate mechanisms to process asylum seekers at and within its borders, and not to return (refouler) any person to a country in which they face such persecution. In addition, the Convention Against Torture (CAT) obliges states to similarly refrain from returning such persons who would face torture.
These obligations are now considered customary international law, requiring all states to refrain from returning someone to a place in which they would face torture or persecution. The Refugee Convention explicitly notes the need for international cooperation in the hosting of people fleeing persecution, “considering that the grant of asylum may place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries, and that a satisfactory solution of a problem of which the United Nations has recognized the international scope and nature cannot therefore be achieved without international co-operation.”
While politicians may have their reasons to conflate refugee admissions with applications for asylum at the southern border, it is important to understand that refugee admissions and asylum processing are two separate processes. People arriving at the border are seeking asylum, which — contrary to some rhetoric — is a lawful process. While meeting the same definition of a refugee, as codified in treaty and law, as someone facing persecution on account of a protected ground, asylum seekers cannot present claims outside of the United States — the law requires that they apply and go through vetting at the border or within the United States.
Conversely, refugees — those who are subject to the admission caps at the heart of the recent numbers kerfuffle — apply and go through vetting before they are approved for admission and allowed to travel to the United States. Unfortunately, many of those who are forced to seek protection are from countries or regions in which the U.S. does not have refugee processing available (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, for example). In those cases, therefore, they are forced to travel — often irregularly — to present their asylum claims at or within the United States The refugee admission caps don’t apply to them, but for context, the U.S granted just under 50,000 cases for asylum in 2019.
Playing Off Fear
The conflating of refugees and asylum seekers has allowed politicians to play off fear to keep refugee numbers extremely low by alleging surges of asylum seekers. Internal political rhetoric notwithstanding, the United States takes a tiny fraction of the world’s refugees, representing an even smaller fraction of the U.S. population as a whole. While there are more than 26 million refugees worldwide, as of November 2020, the United States had accepted refugees representing only 0.25 percent of its population, with just over 29,000 refugees admitted in FY 2019. While admissions were historically low under Trump, the U.S. has never shouldered its fair share — historical averages of 100,000 refugees since the passage of the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 represent just 0.5 percent of worldwide refugee totals, despite the U.S. having the world’s third-largest population and largest economy.
The Trump administration’s drastic reduction of the annual admissions cap has left an even greater share of people fleeing persecution languishing in refugee camps abroad, awaiting resettlement. The countries where those camps are located or where refugees are otherwise either permanently resettled or sheltering as they seek a permanent home are mostly much smaller and much poorer than the United States, yet they host vastly larger numbers of refugees. For example, Lebanon, with a population of 6 million (or, roughly the population of the state of Minnesota), is currently hosting an estimated 1.5 million refugees from Syria, or 25 percent of its population. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the top five refugee-hosting countries — accounting for 39 percent of the world’s refugees — are Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Germany.
With a new administration sprang hope of working towards a more humane and fair U.S. approach to refugee admissions. Yet, the Biden administration’s waffling on refugee admissions, and the accompanying delay in refugee processing, has meant that thousands of people abroad who have already been vetted and screened for resettlement remain in limbo, likely separated from family and in dangerous or unsafe conditions.
Just as importantly, failing to resettle refugees promptly, and in at least historical pre-Trump numbers, does nothing to ameliorate the situation at the southern U.S. border, and may well make the situation worse. People who are desperate to escape dangerous and often life-threatening persecution, and who are denied the opportunity to apply for refugee status, are likely to turn to other means to seek safety. Many of them may undertake a perilous journey to join others in seeking asylum. Upon arriving to the United States, they will be met with a system designed to discourage claims and bar entry through inefficiencies and barriers that cause backlogs and result in denial of bona fide claims. As we know from our work, the lack of viable paths for protection or migration also gives rise to trafficking and exploitation by those who take advantage of desperation.
The Biden administration has consistently promised to meet U.S. obligations and uphold American values by protecting those in need, while also taking bold action to remedy the country’s immigration system, which fails to provide viable, safe, and efficient means of migration. Making good on those promises by raising the admission cap back to 100,000 or greater and resuming the orderly process of resettling eligible refugees is the only rational way for Biden to proceed.
In addition, Congress must pass the GRACE Act, which would set a minimum refugee admissions goal of 125,000, and increase congressional oversight to hold the administration accountable for operating the program in good faith. The legislation, which is separate from a comprehensive Biden administration proposal for immigration reform, also would take steps toward ensuring the United States does its part by considering worldwide refugee numbers as determined by UNHCR.
The United States can and must uphold its international commitments to refugee protections and welcome a number of refugees that more accurately reflects its size and economic capacity. At the same time, the administration and Congress must improve asylum processes and update the immigration system as a whole, to ensure dignity and humanity in migration for the 21st century.