The United States Can’t Welcome More Refugees Without Reforming Its Resettlement System

Trump gutted the programs that helped aid and place migrants. Now Biden is left with a mess.

By Anwar Mhajne, an assistant professor at Stonehill College, and Crystal Whetstone, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University.
Pao Ge Vang, 5, waits for the school bus to take him home after his second day in kindergarten at Herndon-Barstow Elementary School in Fresno, California, on Dec. 10, 2004. The Vangs are among thousands of Hmong refugees who fled Laos for Thailand 30 years ago and were part of the current U.S government resettlement program for up to 15,000 Hmong.
Pao Ge Vang, 5, waits for the school bus to take him home after his second day in kindergarten at Herndon-Barstow Elementary School in Fresno, California, on Dec. 10, 2004. The Vangs are among thousands of Hmong refugees who fled Laos for Thailand 30 years ago and were part of the current U.S government resettlement program for up to 15,000 Hmong. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

On Feb. 4, U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order to raise the annual refugee resettlement cap to 125,000 and restore the United States’ position “as a leader in refugee resettlement.” His order, a sharp reversal in U.S. refugee policy, revokes a presidential memorandum by former President Donald Trump that limited admissions under the guise of preventing terrorism. Yet it will not go far enough.

In his last year in office, former President Barack Obama approved resettlement for up to 110,000 refugees per year. But the Trump administration slashed these rates in half, allowing only 53,700 refugees into the country in fiscal year 2017. In subsequent years, the numbers dwindled even further, with Trump capping the refugee ceiling at 18,000 for the fiscal year 2020. In reality, only 11,814 individuals were resettled.

Trump’s drastic reduction in refugee admittance hindered resettlement organizations, which saw many agencies shut down due to lack of work, while former employees were pushed to find new jobs. All this has raised concerns about whether they have the capacity to resettle an influx nearly 10 times greater than in Trump’s final year in office.

But even if restoring the previous status quo was possible, a return to Obama-era policies would not ensure that refugees’ needs are met. There are long-standing problems in the U.S. resettlement process, which forces refugees to navigate a complex web of agencies and bureaucracies.

Refugees are first extensively vetted, a process that begins overseas with the Resettlement Support Center and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Once approved, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) and Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) work together to administer aid to refugees. PRM collaborates with nine voluntary nonprofit national resettlement agencies to execute its Reception and Placement program, providing refugees with short-term support in the first 90 days. ORR, on the other hand, offers longer-term aid and operates through state-administered programs or local nonprofits.

In this public-private partnership, resettlement organizations are often constrained by federal rules and limited funding. The reception and placement funding, for example, restricts assistance to the first 90 days of refugees’ arrival, impeding local resettlement partners’ ability to help refugees for a sustained period. Then ORR, in partnership with states, offers additional funds. However, the reductions in prolonged federal funding have put pressure on the states and local authorities, contributing to an increased backlash in those communities. PRM and ORR’s funding for refugees has also not adjusted with increased living costs, further restricting refugees as they adapt to life in the United States.

If this sounds complicated, it’s because it is. Multiple federal executive agencies, state governments, national nonprofits, local nonprofits, churches, mosques, and community groups are all involved in the refugee resettlement system. With such a convoluted, patchwork approach to resettlement, refugees’ needs often fall through the cracks.

The existing system also fails to address the key issues that refugees face upon arrival. U.S. resettlement policies aim to help refugees become “self-sufficient,” a goal that narrowly focuses on securing employment, and thereby ending state assistance. But in focusing on employment, the system neglects social challenges like learning English and adjusting to new norms. Many refugees may also struggle emotionally with the trauma that pushed them out of their home countries to begin with, or they may experience discrimination and hostility in their host communities. Yet none of these issues are prioritized—let alone addressed—in U.S. resettlement policies.

At the same time as it raises the resettlement cap, Biden’s new executive order overrides Trump’s 2019 executive order that required the consent of states and towns before resettling refugees into their communities. Although this order was struck down by the courts, it and Trump’s other actions succeeded in depicting refugees as both a “threat and a burden” to American communities, as the Washington Post put it. As more refugees are allowed into the United States, they may be joining host communities that are wary of—or even openly hostile to—their arrival.

By issuing his order, Biden has indicated his commitment to resettling refugees and supporting international law—but it’s not enough. The system’s public-private partnership, intended to reduce costs, fails to set all refugees up for success. Biden should revamp the resettlement system so that instead of focusing narrowly on employment, it prioritizes helping refugees adjust to life in the United States and address past trauma. The system should provide one year of rent and a basic living stipend—and not limit assistance to the first 90 days—to ensure that refugees have the time and option to learn English, engage with their new communities, and receive job training. Although these endeavors entail upfront costs, they are critical in positioning refugees to succeed in the United States.

Trump’s policies also lent credence to xenophobic—and especially Islamophobic—fears that refugee resettlement increases terrorism. The Biden administration should counter this xenophobia by explaining the refugee vetting process and highlighting the contributions that refugees, specifically Muslim refugees, make in the United States. Refugees bring their skills to host communities and increase consumer demand in their new homes. Accepting refugees is also an American tradition that enriches the country.

A comprehensive overhauling of the refugee resettlement program is required to help refugees adapt to life in the United States, make the system easier to navigate, and ease the potential concerns of host communities. Raising the refugee resettlement cap is a step in the right direction—but to fully address refugees’ needs, the Biden administration will need to go further than just restoring the status quo.

Anwar Mhajne is an assistant professor at Stonehill College and a political scientist specializing in international relations and comparative politics with a focus on gender, religion, and Middle Eastern politics.

Crystal Whetstone is an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University’s Department of Political Science. Her work seeks to make political participation equitable and inclusive.