The Highest Refugee Admission in Three Decades

The Biden administration is expected to hit FY 2024 ceiling set at 125,000

By Nayla Rush on October 2, 2023

The annual number of refugees to be admitted into the United States under the U.S. refugee resettlement program, also known as ceiling, is set by the president after “consultation” with Congress at the start of each fiscal year. These “consultations”, however, are closer to last minute notifications than they are to real deliberations.

On Friday, September 29, the Biden administration announced that it was setting the refugee ceiling for FY 2024 at 125,000 (no change from the last couple of years). Except that, this time, the ceiling is expected to be met in full (which could lead to the highest admission numbers since FY 1993, when 119,050 refugees were admitted under a 132,000 ceiling).

Low refugee admissions under Biden (despite high ceilings) were becoming a trend. In FY 2022 (October 1, 2021, to September 30, 2022), a total of 25,465 refugees (20 percent of the announced target) were resettled in the United States under a ceiling of 125,000. So far in FY 2023 (October 1, 2022, through August 31, 2023), 51,231 refugees have been resettled under a similar ceiling of 125,000. With one more month to go and around 7,000-8,000 expected admissions this September, we should get close to 60,000 admissions (50 percent of the ceiling) in FY 2023.

Low refugee admissions under Biden despite his administration’s commitment to welcoming refugees was due to numerous factors. Heavy cuts to operational capacity made under the Trump administration and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic curbed resettlement. But other factors were also at play. The surge of illegal crossings on the southern border, along with other new entrants in need of processing and assistance, such as Afghan and Ukrainian parolees (who were granted the same benefits as refugees) were overwhelming the system and diverting federal resources away from refugees in need of resettlement.

In FY 2024, the 125,000 ceiling should be within reach. Monthly admissions were low at the beginning of Biden’s term (around 400 per month), but increased drastically to reach 6,000-7,000 refugees per month. Admissions are expected to reach over 10,000 per month in FY 2024.

Here’s why: The Biden administration is modernizing the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). It is partnering with the U.S. Digital Corps to upgrade the main technology system that “supports the United States’ Refugee and Asylum programs to ensure it scales for unprecedented goals in resettling refugees”. The result is an increased functionality in global case management systems (electronic review of information, digitization of registration forms, expansion of video-teleconference interviews, etc.), leading to faster processing times (down to six months from an average of 24 months). Other measures include concurrent processing, adding circuit rides, hiring new staff, and contracting additional resettlement agencies to assist refugees upon arrival. A tenth resettlement agency (Bethany Christian Services) was added to the existing nine.

The Biden administration has also expanded USRAP. In January 2023, it launched the Welcome Corps program, “the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in more than 40 years”. The program allows private individuals in the United States (including newly resettled refugees and other newcomers) to select their own refugees and future American citizens. It also eliminates geographic boundaries to resettlement. Another program operating under the umbrella of the Welcome Corps was introduced in July 2023 as an education pathway to citizenship for refugees. The program is called the “Welcome Corps on Campus” and is designed to welcome refugees straight to U.S. dorms and campuses, allowing for “U.S. higher education institutions to serve as resettlement spaces and academic opportunities for refugee students”.

Both Welcome Corps programs are game-changing, as they hand over the control of most of the resettlement process to private individuals or organizations and allow them to select their own “refugees” and future American citizens. Sponsors under these programs will be able to pick their own "refugees". Those chosen do not even need to be “refugees” (i.e. hold refugee status per the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) Refugee Status Determination (RSD)), let alone refugees in “need of resettlement” as per UNHCR’s prioritization.

Another announcement made as part of Biden’s “Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for FY 2024” is to exponentially increase resettlement efforts for individuals from Latin America and the Caribbean. FY 2023 allocations for that region were 15,000, with 5,501 admissions so far (through August 2023).

We can expect allocations from that region to double or triple in FY 2024. This would be another attempt by the Biden administration to offer yet another legal pathway to nationals of that region to deter illegal ones. The impact of this strategy remains to be seen.

Topics: Refugees