The Refugee Resettlement Program Is Losing Its Reason for Being

By Nayla Rush on September 7, 2022

In a recent Washington Examiner article, Anna Giaritelli explains how the Biden administration is missing the “125K legal refugee pledge while breaking illegal immigration record.” It is true that illegal border crossings hit record highs under this administration and that low refugee admissions under Biden (despite high ceilings) are becoming a trend. 

As I explained back in May, the Biden administration seems to be prioritizing those fleeing poverty, not war. The border crisis and its illegal crossings (along with other new entrants in need of processing and assistance, such as Afghan and Ukrainian parolees) are overwhelming the system and diverting federal resources away from refugees in need of resettlement.

Back in FY 2021 (October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021), only 11,411 refugees (18 percent of Biden’s announced target of 62,500) were resettled in the United States. FY 2021 admissions were 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 that administration (due to travel restrictions and the suspension of the worldwide refugee resettlement program following the Covid-19 pandemic). For a closer look at refugee admissions under Trump and Biden, refer to my Refugee Resettlement Roundup.

With only one month left in FY 2022, we are far from reaching the 125,000 ceiling set by President Biden; only 19,919 refugees have been resettled so far (October 1, 2021 through August 31, 2022). Of the 19,919, only 1,189 were Afghans and 1,126 Ukrainians. The number of resettled Ukrainian refugees since the Russian invasion in February (March through August) totaled 548.

Illegal crossings are not solely to blame for these low resettlement admissions. In fact, the mandate of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) keeps expanding, adding both new benefits as well as new beneficiaries. ORR has lost its original focus on resettled refugees and is more and more diverting its resources to various other populations who are not fleeing danger but looking for better opportunities. This includes not only border-crossers from Central America, but also two categories of people recently added to ORR’s list of beneficiaries: Afghan parolees and Ukrainian parolees.

Some 80,000 Afghan nationals were evacuated from Afghanistan by the U.S. government under the “Operation Allies Refuge” (July-August 2021) following the withdrawal of U.S. troops last summer. Most who boarded those planes were not Special Immigrant Visa holders or applicants (SIVs are for Afghan interpreters/translators or "allies", i.e. those who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government and who faced a serious threat as a result of that employment); nor were they granted refugee status. The majority of Afghan evacuees were simply “paroled” into the United States without a visa and therefore, unlike resettled refugees, had limited access to benefits and services. This is where Congress intervened as early as September 2021 and passed legislation (see the Afghanistan Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2022 and the Additional Afghanistan Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2022) to make Afghan parolees (current and future) eligible for the same assistance provided to refugees.

More recently, and following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, over 100,000 Ukrainians are expected to be admitted into the United States. Millions of Ukrainians sought refuge in various countries across Europe where they were granted a “temporary protection” status (which entails a residence permit, access to employment, housing, social welfare, medical treatment, education, etc.) following a historic decision by the European Commission. Only a small percentage will decide to move onward to the United States, mostly to join family members already here. Those who do will mainly be processed under a new program launched in April by the Biden administration called “Uniting for Ukraine” and not under the U.S. refugee resettlement program. “Uniting for Ukraine” is a “new streamlined process” that offers Ukrainian nationals (and their non-Ukrainian immediate family members) a chance to come to the United States straight from Europe under “humanitarian parole” via what has been described as “private,” non-taxpayer-funded sponsorships. Again, parolees typically have limited access to benefits and are only eligible for employment authorization and Social Security numbers but, following the Additional Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2022 (H.R. 7691) signed by Biden in May, Ukrainian parolees will receive federal assistance and refugee resettlement benefits upon arrival to the United States.

If, with every crisis it faces, the Biden administration chooses to create an alternative pathway to expedite admissions from the countries involved, one cannot but wonder about the need for a refugee resettlement program. A program that keeps diverting its resources to various new categories of people (including those who want, but do not necessarily need, to come to the United States) is overlooking real refugees in real need of resettlement.