Read More: Restricted Access to Refugee Statistics
Nayla Rush is a senior researcher at the Center for Immigration Studies.
With the beginning of a new fiscal year (October 1, 2021), we take a look at the prior fiscal year’s refugee resettlement admissions. One difference, though, is that this year’s overview will not include the religion of refugees. This information used to be publicly available through the refugee admissions data reporting on the Refugee Processing Center (RPC) website.1 It has since been removed among other information on resettled refugees such as gender, age, education, etc.
The roundup below gives a detailed account of FY 2021 refugee ceilings, admissions, nationalities, and placement states. Some key points:
- In FY 2021 (October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021), a total of 11,411 refugees (18 percent of Biden’s announced target of 62,500) were resettled in the United States.
- FY 2021 admissions are the lowest refugee admissions since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980. They are even lower than any year under Trump, including FY 2020, which saw the lowest refugee admissions during the Trump administration. FY 2020’s admissions totaled 11,814 refugees under a ceiling of 18,000 (close to 66 percent of the announced target). This low number was mainly due to travel restrictions and the suspension of the worldwide refugee resettlement program following the Covid-19 pandemic.
- The top five countries of origin of resettled refugees in FY 2021 were: Democratic Republic of the Congo (42.9 percent); Syria (10.9 percent); Afghanistan (7.6 percent); Ukraine (7.0 percent); and Burma (6.8 percent).
- The top five placement states in FY 2021 were: California (8.6 percent); Texas (8.0 percent); New York (6.2 percent); Kentucky (5.7 percent); and Michigan (4.7 percent).
- Specific data on resettled refugees, including religion, gender, education, etc., used to be publicly available through the “interactive reporting” tool on the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System (WRAPS) online platform operated by the U.S Department of State. With the deployment of a new IT system, these are no longer available. It is unclear if they will ever be made accessible again under a Biden administration that seems more concerned about “data protection” and “refugee privacy” than it is about transparency.
- The FY 2021 resettled refugee ceiling was set by President Trump at 15,000 (a number explained in reference to the Covid-19 pandemic and the asylum backlog). Faced with a border crisis, and despite his numerous campaign promises to do the opposite, President Biden initially kept the cap set by his predecessor. Biden backtracked in May after push-back from refugee advocates, finally raising the refugee ceiling to 62,500. As a reminder, Trump decreased President Obama’s FY 2017 refugee ceiling by more than half only seven days after his inauguration day.
- Biden raised the refugee ceiling but warned that it might not be reached, blaming Trump for the shortfall. But monthly refugee admissions under Trump (except during the official suspension of the resettlement program by UN agencies due to the Covid-19 pandemic) were higher than those under Biden’s first three months. It is only when Biden decided to increase the ceiling that admissions increased, which can lead one to believe that the low refugee admissions were more a matter of will than the result of a “broken” refugee program.
- Low refugee admissions under Biden were affected by the border crisis and its burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). This crisis was (and still is) diverting federal agency resources, including those of the ORR, to the southern border to assist unaccompanied minors and certain other border crossers.
- Biden did increase the refugee ceiling when prompted by refugee advocates, but did not reverse his predecessor’s decision to stay out of the two UN Global Compacts (one on migration, the other on refugees) nor was he pressured by refugee/migrant advocates or UN leaders to do so. Trump was vehemently criticized at the time for not endorsing these UN compacts. Biden did reverse his predecessor’s climate policies (as he did with many of Trump’s immigration policies) almost immediately after gaining power, but he has yet to join these compacts 10 months into his presidency.
Limited Access to Refugee Data in FY 2021
Refugee admissions data is publicly available on the RPC website. RPC is operated by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). At the RPC, an interactive computer system called the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System (WRAPS) is “used to process and track the movement of refugees from various countries around the world to the U.S. for resettlement under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).”2 The “interactive reporting” tool on the WRAPS platform gave access to specific data on resettled refugees, such as day and month of admission, city and state of initial placement, nationality, religion, gender, age, education, etc.
This tool has been rendered inactive. The only data still publicly available is through monthly “Admissions and Arrivals” reports released by the U.S. government on the RPC site.3 These reports only cover monthly admissions, nationality, and placement states of resettled refugees.
The reason for the deactivation of the “Interactive Reporting” was explained to me via email by a State Department spokesperson in May 2021:
On October 9, 2020, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) began migrating its Refugee Processing Center case processing system to a new IT system. This is part of a multi-year process to upgrade and modernize the system used to ensure the safety, security, and integrity of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Due to this migration and the development and deployment of the new IT system, the publicly available refugee admissions data reporting on www.wrapsnet.org changed effective 5:00 p.m. EST October 9, 2020:
The Refugee Processing Center is unable to produce certain previously available reports due to the development and deployment of the new IT system to facilitate refugee case management and related development of new reporting tools. We expect to complete the process of deploying the new system to all of our platforms worldwide in December 2021.
The reports that will remain during the migration are the most commonly requested/used reports, possible to recreate using currently available technology tools, and take into account refugee privacy concerns.
Once new IT systems are fully deployed in December 2021, the Refugee Processing Center will provide additional reporting on the website. We have yet to determine which specific reports will be available, but we will take into account data protection and refugee privacy concerns. [Emphasis added.]
This means that, even after the full deployment of the new IT system in December 2021, we may not have access to all the reporting that was available prior to this data migration. The official justification behind this possible censorship is the protection of refugee data and privacy.
But “refugee privacy concerns” in this specific context are unfounded. Publically available information regarding resettled refugees does not include names, specific backgrounds, current or past addresses, etc.; and could in no way be detrimental to refugees. This type of “data protection” seems superfluous while access to detailed information for researchers and policymakers is essential. Statistical patterns are, indeed, needed to design appropriate policies and provide suitable help for refugees and their hosting communities alike.
FY 2021 Refugee Ceilings and Proposed Allocation Spots under Trump and Biden
Ceiling Set at 15,000 by President Trump
On October 28, 2020, President Trump issued the “Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2021”, setting the FY 2021 refugee ceiling at 15,000.4 The Trump administration referenced the Covid-19 pandemic and the asylum backlog to explain this low ceiling:
This proposed refugee admissions ceiling reflects the continuing backlog of over 1.1 million asylum-seekers who are awaiting adjudication of their claims inside the United States, and it accounts for the arrival of refugees whose resettlement in the United States was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.5
On his first day in office, Biden rescinded Trump’s ban on immigrant visas for certain majority-Muslim countries but did not address the refugee ceiling. In a January 20, 2021, “Proclamation on Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to The United States”, Biden revoked a number of President Trump’s executive orders and proclamations.6 Biden explained:
[T]he previous administration enacted a number of Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations that prevented certain individuals from entering the United States — first from primarily Muslim countries, and later, from largely African countries. Those actions are a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.7
Ceiling Kept at 15,000 by President Biden
On April 16, the White House announced that President Trump’s refugee ceiling would remain in place. In a presidential memo to the State Department, Biden wrote:
The admission of up to 15,000 refugees remains justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest. Should 15,000 admissions under the revised allocations for FY 2021 be reached prior to the end of the fiscal year and the emergency refugee situation persists, a subsequent Presidential Determination may be issued to increase admissions, as appropriate.” [Emphasis added.]8
The border crisis has undoubtedly weighed on Biden’s reluctance to increase FY 2021 refugee ceiling, a promise he made repeatedly on his campaign trail.9 The New York Times reported that “the president had made his views clear, according to several people familiar with his objections to the idea of capping refugee admissions at 62,500. With crossings at the border rising, he did not intend to sign off on that number.”10 Biden kept the 15,000 ceiling but revised the allocation spots as follows:
- Africa: 7,000
- East Asia: 1,000
- Europe and Central Asia: 1,500
- Latin America and the Caribbean: 3,000
- Near East and South Asia: 1,500
- Unallocated Reserve: 1,000
- Grand Total: 15,000
The proposed FY 2021 allocations by category under Trump were as follows:11
have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion; or who are within a category of aliens established under subsection (b) of Section 599D of Title V, P.L. 101-167, as amended (the Lautenberg and Specter Amendments) (admit up to 5,000).
Refugees who are within a category of aliens listed in Section 1243(a) of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007, Title XII, Div. A, P.L. 110-181, as amended (admit up to 4,000).
Refugees who are nationals or habitual residents of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras (admit up to 1,000).
Other refugees in the following groups (admit up to 5,000):
Those referred to the USRAP by a U.S. embassy in any location.
Those who will be admitted through a Form I-730 following-to-join petition or who gain access to the USRAP for family reunification through the P-3 process.
Those currently located in Australia, Nauru, or Papua New Guinea who gain access to USRAP pursuant to an arrangement between the United States and Australia.
Those who are nationals or habitual residents of Hong Kong, Venezuela, or Cuba.
Those in the USRAP who were in “Ready for Departure” status as of September 30, 2019.
Ceiling Raised to 62,500 by President Biden
Following criticism from lawmakers and refugee advocates, Biden finally “backtracked” on May 3 and agreed to increase the refugee cap.12 Less than five months before the end of the fiscal year, the president announced he was “revising the United States’ annual refugee admissions cap to 62,500 for this fiscal year”, erasing “the historically low number set by the previous administration of 15,000”.13As a reminder, President Trump decreased President Obama’s FY 2017 refugee ceiling by more than half (from 110,000 to 50,000) on January 27, 2017, only seven days after inauguration day.14
FY 2021 proposed allocations spots under President Biden’s new ceiling of 62,500 refugees are as follows:
- Africa: 22,000
- East Asia: 6,000
- Europe and Central Asia: 4,000
- Latin America and the Caribbean: 5,000
- Near East and South Asia: 13,000
- Unallocated Reserve: 12,500
- Grand Total: 62,500
Blame It on Trump?
Biden’s cap adjustment to 62,500 looks more like a smokescreen aimed at appeasing critics than it does an actual roadmap. By Biden’s own admission, his ambitious new target is unattainable: “The sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year.”15 He was right: They only achieved 18 percent of their announced target.
Biden blamed Trump for this shortcoming: “We are working quickly to undo the damage [to the refugee resettlement program] of the last four years.”16
But upon a closer look at refugee admissions,17 we find that monthly admissions were higher under Trump than they were under Biden’s first three months in office — apart from the April-July 2020 when admissions dropped drastically following UN agencies’ temporary suspension of the refugee resettlement program in view of the Covid-19 global health crisis18 and the months that had no or minimal entries because of delays in the presidential ceiling determination (refugees cannot be admitted until the presidential determination for that fiscal year has been issued).19 It is only after Biden decided to raise the FY 2021 ceiling in May that admission numbers increased. This means that low refugee admissions were more likely the result of a decision by the administration rather than of a “broken” refugee program.
Monthly admissions under Trump from FY 2017 to FY 2020 (with the above exclusions) averaged 2,162 refugees. Details as such:
- FY 2017 average monthly admissions (February-September 2017): 2,658
- FY 2018 average monthly admissions: 1,879
- FY 2019 average monthly admissions: 2,500
- FY 2020 average monthly admissions (except for October, which saw no admissions because of the delay in the presidential determination): 2,626.
In FY 2021, under Trump (except for the last 10 days of January), 399 refugees were admitted in November 2020, 598 in December 2020, and 405 in January 2021 (Biden took over on January 20).
Below are the detailed FY 2021 monthly admissions:
Under President Trump — Ceiling at 15,000 — Presidential Determination Announced October 27, 2020.
- October 2020: 1
- November 2020: 399
- December 2020: 598
- January 2021: 405 (Mostly President Trump)
Under President Biden — Ceiling at 15,000
- February 2021: 377
- March 2021: 283
- April 2021: 272
- May 2021: 915 (Ceiling raised to 62,500)
- June 2021: 1,533
- July 2021: 1,491
- August 2021: 1,363
- September 2021: 3,774
- Total FY 2021: 11,411
At a minimum, around 600 refugees could have been resettled every month under Biden. Instead, refugee admissions decreased when Biden took office: 377 in February, 283 in March, and 271 in April. Admissions only ramped up following the ceiling increase, which means it was all along a matter of will, not capacity. That said, and despite higher numbers in the last part of the fiscal year, total refugee admissions remain the lowest ever since the refugee resettlement program was set in motion in 1980. Even lower than any fiscal year under Trump.
Blame It on the Border Crisis?
As illegal crossings from Central America and other countries reach record levels, the Biden administration is trying to manage incoming flows by, among other things, diverting federal agency resources toward the southern border.20
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, blamed Trump for expected low resettled refugee numbers under Biden, but admitted that resources deployed at the southern border were holding these numbers down:
Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his [President Biden’s] initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely. [Emphasis added.]
Apprehensions of unaccompanied minors (UACs) at the Southwest border in FY 2021 were close to 145,000. Under federal law, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement is responsible for the care and shelter of unaccompanied minors while they wait to be placed with a sponsor (usually a family member already living in the United States, often illegally). Minors are to be transferred from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to HHS within 72 hours of apprehension.
Overwhelmed by these flows of UACs (as well as family units and adult migrants claiming credible fear), HHS has asked its federal workers to volunteer for 120-day deployments to the U.S.-Mexico border to help manage this crisis.21
Federal agencies’ resources are not endless. The border crisis is draining these resources, and refugee officers who should be in charge of resettling refugees are focusing instead on border crossers who, for the most part, are using asylum claims as an entry ticket to the United States while real refugees are waiting to be resettled here.
The United States Under Biden Still Out of Both Global UN Migration and Refugee Compacts
Biden has not yet addressed the United States’ non-endorsement of the two UN Global Compacts: “The Global Compact on Refugees22” and “The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration”23. Trump was criticized for not signing onto those compacts in 2018, so why hasn’t Biden reversed his predecessor’s decision; and, why aren’t refugee advocates, human rights activists, and UN leaders asking him to endorse them?
This was surely an easy fix. Biden did reverse his predecessor’s climate policies (as he did with many of Trump’s immigration policies) almost immediately after gaining power and started the process to rejoin the Paris Agreement (a legally binding international treaty on climate change).24 On January 20, only hours after he was sworn in, Biden signed an “Acceptance on behalf of the United States of America”25 statement that started the 30-day process for the United States to reenter the climate treaty (which officially took place on February 19, 2021).26
A UN press release welcomed the election of Biden, noting his support for migrants and refugees:
While the Trump administration had severely reduced the number of refugees admitted through the resettlement programme, as part of an anti-immigration stance that included a travel ban on citizens travelling from a group of mainly Muslim-majority countries, President Biden has signaled that he will restore it.27
On Biden’s Inauguration Day, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that he was looking forward to “working with the new US administration to strengthen multilateral cooperation” to support migrants and refugees and hoping “to see the United States join the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.”28 The head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the world body’s refugee agency, also “congratulated the new President and Vice President on taking office, pledging to work with them to strengthen global support for refugees.”29 But the Biden administration is showing no inclination to endorse either compact.
Joining the Global Compact for Refugees, wrote a Georgetown University professor, will make Biden’s commitment to refugees a reality.30 Almost 10 months into his presidency, Biden has yet to deliver.
FY 2021 Refugee Admissions
In FY 2021 (October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021), a total of 11,411 refugees (18 percent of the announced target) were resettled in the United States under a refugee ceiling of 62,500.
These are the lowest fiscal year admissions since 1980, when Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which standardized resettlement services for all refugees admitted to the United States. They are even lower than FY 2020’s admissions under president Trump that totaled 11,814 refugees under a ceiling of 18,000 (close to 66 percent of the announced target).
That is an outcome the Biden administration probably wished to avoid. Actually, in its Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2022 released on September 20, 2021 (10 days before the end of FY 2021), the Biden administration projected a total of 12,500 refugee admissions in FY 2021 (this was a first as no such projections had ever been posted in a Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions).31 The total refugee admissions from October 1, 2020, through August 31, 2021 (one month before the end of the fiscal year), amounted to only 7,637, which means that 4,863 needed to be admitted in September 2021 to reach the 12,500 projection. The Biden administration came in 1,089 short of their own projection and 404 refugees short of being able to avoid the title of “lowest refugee admissions” in the history of the U.S. refugee resettlement program as we know it.
Also worthy of note here, FY 2020 admissions would have been higher if not for the Covid-19 pandemic. These admissions were hindered by multiple measures undertaken by the Trump administration to try and limit the spread of the Covid-19 virus, such as travel restrictions, the closing of borders, etc. But the main reason why the target was not reached was the official suspension of refugee admissions into the United States (March 19 to July 29, 2020) following the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR’s announcement of the temporary suspension of the refugee resettlement program in view of the Covid-19 global health crisis.32
Here’s a quick look at FY 2020 refugee admissions (Refer to my “Refugee Resettlement Roundup for FY 2020” for extensive details about FY 2020 refugee admissions.33 A three-year roundup of refugee resettlement admissions under the Trump administration from January 20, 2017, to January 20, 2020, is also available.34)
Refugees admitted in FY 2020 were mostly Christian (73.8 percent), while Muslims accounted for 22 percent, and Animists, Buddhists, and Hindus accounted for 1.8 percent.
The top-five countries of origin were the Democratic Republic of the Congo (24.3 percent), Burma (17.9 percent), Ukraine (16.3 percent), Afghanistan (5.1 percent), and Iraq (4.5 percent).
The top-five placement states were: California (10.1 percent), Washington (9.4 percent), Texas (7.6 percent), Michigan (4.2 percent), and Kentucky (4.0 percent).
Below are the top-10 nationalities, top-10 placement states, and regional allocations for 2021(data retrieved from the Refugee Processing Center portal).35 As mentioned above, the religious affiliation of refugees was not accessible.
FY 2021 Top-10 Nationalities
- Democratic Republic of the Congo: 4,891 (42.9 percent)
- Syria: 1,246 (10.9 percent)
- Afghanistan: 872 (7.6 percent)
- Ukraine: 803 (7.0)
- Burma: 772 (6.8)
- Sudan: 513 (4.5 percent)
- Iraq: 497 (4.3 percent)
- El Salvador: 200 (1.7 percent)
- Eritrea: 184 (1.6 percent)
- Iran: 184 (1.6 percent)
- Somalia: 174 (1.5 percent)
FY 2021 Top-10 Placement States
- California: 986 (8.6 percent)
- Texas: 914 (8.0 percent)
- New York: 708 (6.2 percent)
- Kentucky: 652 (5.7 percent)
- Michigan: 533 (4.7 percent)
- North Carolina: 510 (4.5 percent)
- Washington: 480 (4.2 percent)
- Ohio: 454 (4.0 percent)
- Arizona: 422 (3.7 percent)
- Pennsylvania: 395 (3.5 percent)
FY 2021 Regional Allocations
- Africa: 6,219 (54,5 percent)
- East Asia: 776 (6.8 percent)
- Europe: 983 (8.6 percent)
- Latin America/Caribbean: 400 (3.5 percent)
- Near East/South Asia: 3,033 (26.6 percent)
- Unallocated Reserve Region: 0
- Total: 11,411
2 “Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System” (WRAPS), Refugee Processing Center.
4 “Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2021”, The Trump White House archives, October 27, 2020.
5 “Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2021”, U.S. Department of State, October 27, 2020.
6 “Proclamation on Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to The United States”, the White House, January 2021.
8 “Memorandum for the Secretary of State on the Emergency Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2021”, the White House, April 16, 2021.
10 Michael D. Shear and Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “An Early Promise Broken: Inside Biden’s Reversal on Refugees”, The New York Times, updated April 28, 2021.
11 “Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2021”, U.S. Department of State, October 27, 2020.
12 Kaitlan Collins and Priscilla Alvarez, “White House backtracks on refugees decision after criticism and says Biden will announce increased cap by May 15”, CNN Politics, April 17, 2021.
13 “Statement by President Joe Biden on Refugee Admissions”, the White House, May 3, 2021.
14 “Executive Order Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”, The Trump White House archives, January 27, 2017.
15 “Statement by President Joe Biden on Refugee Admissions”, the White House, May 3, 2021.
18 “IOM, UNHCR announce temporary suspension of resettlement travel for refugees”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, March 17, 2020.
20 Andrew R. Arthur, “FY 2021’s Historically Bad Border Numbers Are Worse than You Think”, Center for Immigration Studies blog, October 26, 2021.
21 Steven Nelson, “Feds ask for volunteers to process kids detained at US-Mexico border”, New York Post, March 26, 2021.
23 “Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM)”, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, undated. For my analyses of the United States’ involvement with the compacts, see Nayla Rush, “Avoiding the Quicksand of the Global Compact on Refugees: A nesting doll of international commitments”, Center for Immigration Studies blog, December 4, 2018, and Nayla Rush, “A Historic Victory for the UN: Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees Adopted This Week”, Center for Immigration Studies blog, December 20, 2018.
26 “The United States Officially Rejoins the Paris Agreement”, U.S. Department of State press statement, February 19, 2021.
27 “UN welcomes Biden administration commitment to refugee protection”, UN News, January 20, 2021.
30 Susan Martin, “How President Biden Can Make His Commitment to Refugees a Reality”, Center for Migration Studies, February 19, 2021.
31 “Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2022”, U.S. Department of State, September 20, 2021.
32 “IOM, UNHCR announce temporary suspension of resettlement travel for refugees”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, March 17, 2020.
34 Nayla Rush, “Refugee Resettlement Admissions: A Three-year Roundup under the Trump Administration”, Center for Immigration Studies blog, August 7, 2020.