Biden’s Refugee Envoy Looks to Reform Damaged System

Washington has been slow to meet expanded targets for refugee admissions due to the last administration’s policies.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Julieta Valls Noyes introduces U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Julieta Valls Noyes introduces U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Julieta Valls Noyes, then-acting director of the Foreign Service Institute, introduces U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken before a speech on modernizing U.S. diplomacy in Arlington, Virginia, on Oct. 27, 2021. Leah Millis/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

A senior U.S. diplomat overseeing refugee policy said repairing the U.S. refugee admissions process is one of her top priorities following years of staffing reductions, hiring freezes, and budget cuts that put new strains on an already backlogged system.

“Modernizing and revitalizing the U.S. refugee admissions program is one of my top three priorities for my position here,” Julieta Valls Noyes, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, said in a recent interview with Foreign Policy. “The program was decreased considerably in size in the prior administration. So we have to ramp back up staffing at the State Department, at the Department of Homeland Security, at the Department of Health and Human Services,” referring to the three government agencies that oversee different aspects of the refugee admissions process.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration took a hard-line approach to curbing immigration and refugee admissions, capping the number of refugees it admitted into the country to historically low levels and drawing sharp criticism from Democratic lawmakers and refugee advocacy organizations.

A senior U.S. diplomat overseeing refugee policy said repairing the U.S. refugee admissions process is one of her top priorities following years of staffing reductions, hiring freezes, and budget cuts that put new strains on an already backlogged system.

“Modernizing and revitalizing the U.S. refugee admissions program is one of my top three priorities for my position here,” Julieta Valls Noyes, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, said in a recent interview with Foreign Policy. “The program was decreased considerably in size in the prior administration. So we have to ramp back up staffing at the State Department, at the Department of Homeland Security, at the Department of Health and Human Services,” referring to the three government agencies that oversee different aspects of the refugee admissions process.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration took a hard-line approach to curbing immigration and refugee admissions, capping the number of refugees it admitted into the country to historically low levels and drawing sharp criticism from Democratic lawmakers and refugee advocacy organizations.

“I think it is fair to say that this administration inherited a system in need of reform in line with the priority that it wants to give to resettling refugees,” Noyes said.

U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to swiftly reverse Trump’s refugee policy and boost the number of refugees allowed in the country, but it’s proven slow going, in part because of the time it takes to restaff government agencies and the partnering nonprofit organizations that help resettle refugees. Those offices hemorrhaged staff amid budget cuts, hiring freezes, or (in some cases) even resignations of protest from asylum officers who said the former administration’s policies were immoral and illegal.

The U.S. State Department has been slowly rebuilding its own staff over the past year and a half since the change in administration. The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), which Noyes heads, boosted its staff supporting the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program by around 25 percent since January 2021, when Biden took office, going from 122 to 150 full-time staff. PRM-funded posts at so-called resettlement support centers, which manage refugee applications for resettlement in the United States, increased by 60 percent—from around 1,000 to 1,600 positions, according to data provided by a State Department spokesperson.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) suffered its own staffing and budget woes under the last administration and amid the pandemic, at one point narrowly avoiding being forced to furlough 13,000 employees—nearly 70 percent of its workforce—in 2020 due to budgetary shortfalls.

Matthew Bourke, a spokesperson for USCIS, said the agency is “committed to properly resourcing asylum and refugee operations and ensuring the agency is well-positioned to fulfill its ever-growing humanitarian mission and respond to humanitarian emergencies.” He pointed to a new recruiting initiative to fill 95 percent of the agency’s authorized positions by the end of the year.

Even with the boost in staffing, the refugee admissions process as well as other avenues to legally immigrate to the United States remain mired in convoluted red tape and bureaucratic backlogs, according to refugee advocacy organizations. The backlog worsened during the global coronavirus pandemic, which slowed government services and exacerbated preexisting government bottlenecks in caseloads. Noyes conceded that the Biden administration likely wouldn’t reach its stated goal of resettling 125,000 refugees in the coming fiscal year.

“Will we get there this year? No,” Noyes said. “Can we get there next year? If we dont have another major humanitarian crisis and if these reforms and staffing is ramped up as needed across the three involved agencies and the resettlement partners, I think that it is within reach to get to 125,000.”

The latest available data from April 30 shows the Biden administration has admitted 10,742 refugees for fiscal year 2022, which runs from Oct. 1, 2021, to Sept. 30, 2022. Noyes said the administration is expected to settle some 20,000 to 25,000 refugees in total for the fiscal year. If that number is combined with the tens of thousands of Afghans who entered the United States, this pushes the administration’s numbers up to nearly 100,000—though most Afghan evacuees entered the United States under a temporary humanitarian parole status.

The U.S. government and its allies airlifted tens of thousands of Afghans from the country in the chaotic final days before the Taliban militant group took over the country in late 2021 after Biden withdrew U.S. forces from the country. Some 74,000 Afghans landed in the United States after the chaotic withdrawal that ended a two-decadelong war, most via the “humanitarian parole” special program granting temporary entry to the United States.

Humanitarian parole does not offer a pathway to lawful permanent residence or any other immigration status in the United States. Refugee resettlement and advocacy organizations are pushing Congress to pass legislation that would give Afghans a pathway to pursue permanent residence. One such bill, the Afghan Adjustment Act, is currently being considered in the Senate.

“The truth is this legal limbo that Afghans face is a major source of stress and anxiety,” Krishanti OMara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said late last month. “This is why it’s essential that Congress pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would allow these evacuees to apply for permanent status after one year of residence in the U.S.”

In April, Biden also launched a new humanitarian parole program to allow up to 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion into the United States, though so far, most Ukrainians who left the country have opted to remain in nearby or neighboring countries in Europe. Some Ukrainians, desperate to flee to the United States, have tried to enter the country after crossing a dangerous and illegal route through its southern border with Mexico.

There are also some 18,000 Ukrainians who have applied for permanent refugee resettlement in the United States under the so-called Lautenberg program, which allowed members of religious minority groups who faced persecution under the Soviet Union to reunite with family members who already resided in the United States.

“I think that theres a lot of resolve in the international community and in the front-line states that are receiving these refugees, of standing up for Ukrainian independence and Ukrainian sovereignty and standing up to Russia, and a recognition that this is going to require some longer-term support,” Noyes said.

Update, May 11, 2022: This article was updated to reflect the number of people in the Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees working specifically on the refugee admissions program.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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