The Trump administration, under the watch of White House aide and noted white supremacist Stephen Miller, has taken a sledgehammer to the U.S. refugee program, decimating annual admissions from 110,000 set by the Obama administration to a historic low of just 18,000. On World Refugee Day this past weekend, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden pledged to go even beyond the number set by the Obama administration.
“As President, I will increase the number of refugees we welcome into this country, setting an annual global refugee target of 125,000—up from a ceiling of 18,000 under Trump—and will seek to further raise it over time commensurate with our responsibility, our values, and the unprecedented global need,” he said in a Medium post. And, as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick notes, Biden pledges “to work with Congress to establish a minimum admissions number of at least 95,000 refugees annually,” which would then prevent a future president from again slashing admissions to devastating lows.
“[T]he commitment to work with Congress to create a new floor on refugee admissions is the truly radical aspect of Biden’s new pledge,” Lithwick continues. “It would mean that whoever takes office in future could not do what Trump and Stephen Miller did and set a future ceiling at 18,000 or even lower, because there would be legislation in place to preclude it.” In addition to restoring and raising refugee admissions, Biden also pledged to restore U.S. asylum laws that have been obliterated by the administration without any input from Congress.
“Donald Trump has made clear that he does not believe our country should be a place of refuge,” Biden said. “He has slashed refugee admissions by more than 80 percent and, just this past week, released an immoral and likely unlawful rule that makes it nearly impossible for most asylum-seekers to qualify for protection in the United States. He has cruelly separated thousands of children from their parents, sought to prevent victims of gang and domestic violence from receiving asylum, and severely limited the ability of members of the LGBTQ+ community, an especially vulnerable group in many parts of the world, from qualifying for asylum.”
“This cannot stand,” he continued. “As one of the co-sponsors of the 1980 Refugee Act, I believe that resettling refugees helps reunite families, enriches the fabric of America, and enhances our standing, influence, and security in the world.”
Of course, restoring policies like refugee admissions will also require a reconstruction of refugee agencies that have for years worked with the government to resettle families but were then decimated by cuts. Catholic Charities USA’s vice president of social policy told The Atlantic in 2018 that the group had to close a number of offices following slashes by the Trump administration. “World Relief closed seven offices around the country, two of which were on the path to resettling refugees but hadn’t opened yet,” the report said.
“Every time an office has to shut its doors, the impact isn’t just about the initial people affected,” Refugee Council USA executive director Mary Giovagnoli told The Atlantic. “Once that office has closed, the people with the expertise and the knowledge of working with particular groups have to find other jobs, find other work, and it’s not necessarily going to be in refugee resettlement. We start to lose the skills and capacity. The more you do that, the more you’re likely to lose the critical infrastructure.”
Should Biden win in November, coming back from the abyss created by Trump will require much more than policy reversals: It’ll require a dedicated reinvestment unseen in years, something Biden also realizes. “I also recognize that it is not enough to simply reverse or dismantle the heartless policies of the Trump administration,” he continued. “We need to look for ways to do better. On this World Refugee Day, we all must stand together and recommit to building a more inclusive and welcoming America. That’s how we will restore the soul of our nation.”
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