U.S. keeps the 125,000 ceiling on refugee admissions for fiscal year 2023

By Cristina Turcu Lugmayer

U.S. keeps the 125,000 ceiling on refugee admissions for fiscal year 2023

U.S. President Joe Biden has formally maintained the national refugee admissions cap at 125,000 for the current fiscal year. This decision came despite the increasing number of people worldwide fleeing war and persecution even though the number who were granted entry fell well short of that target in the fiscal year 2022.

The statement was made in late September despite pressure from advocates to allow entry to more refugees as a record number of people are currently fleeing their countries due to war, persecution, violence, and human rights violations. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that the number of displaced people will reach over 100 million this year due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, emergencies in Africa, and other conflicts.

“This means 1 in every 78 people on earth has been forced to flee – a dramatic milestone that few would have expected a decade ago.”

The U.S. refugee resettlement program is an important means to protect those facing violence and persecution. Last fiscal year, the country offered protection to tens of thousands of displaced individuals including those from Afghanistan and Ukraine. Those arriving more recently have not been officially admitted on refugee programs but on humanitarian parole (a temporary legal classification) meaning that they face uncertain prospects regarding access to permanent legal status.

Refugee advocates have been urging the Biden administration to do more to restore the U.S. refugee resettlement program. The over-40-year-old program underwent major cutbacks during the Trump administration which reduced entry admissions to an all-time low of 15,000. After taking office, Biden raised the number of refugee admissions for the remaining months of fiscal year 2021 and subsequently set a ceiling of 125,000 for fiscal year 2022 which ended on September 30.

Although it increased the number of refugees to be admitted during fiscal year 2022, the Biden administration resettled a total of only 25,465 refugees in the previous fiscal year as of September 30, 2021, according to State Department data. This number does not include the approximately 180,000 Ukrainians and Afghans who entered the United States on humanitarian parole which allowed them to enter the country more quickly than via the traditional refugee program but on condition that they could stay for up to two years while “regular” refugees are offered ways to secure permanent residence.

Some believe that the current presidential administration has fallen well short of its refugee intake targets over the past two years mainly because the resettlement system had been slashed under former President Trump who characterized refugees as economic and national security threats. The previous administration not only drastically cut refugee admissions, it also limited the categories of those who could be resettled.

In his Presidential Determination, Biden said that “the admission of up to 125,000 refugees to the United States during fiscal year 2023 is justified by humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest.”

Historically, the average national cap has been set at 95,000 under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Biden allotted 5,000 more slots for refugees from Europe and Central Asia, allowing capacity for those fleeing the war in Ukraine. The largest number of 40,000 slots is allocated for refugees from Africa followed by 35,000 for the Near East/South Asia, 15,000 for East Asia, 15,000 for Europe and Central Asia and 15,000 for Latin America/Caribbean. A further five thousand spaces are allotted as unallocated reserve.

“This ambitious target demonstrates that the United States is committed to rebuilding and strengthening the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, including by building capacity, modernizing and streamlining overall operations, and resolving long-delayed applications,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

He indicated plans for a pilot program are expected to be launched by the end of the year which would allow ordinary Americans to assist in resettling refugees in their communities, similar to the way in which they did for Afghans and Ukrainians.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, Head of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service – one of the largest non-profits helping refugees to resettle, said that the Biden administration must do more to scale up its refugee program, to “ramp up and streamline overseas processing of refugee applications if this lifesaving program is to remain relevant amid an unprecedented global displacement crisis.”

“While humanitarian parole was a valuable stopgap measure to provide temporary protection to Afghans and Ukrainians, it’s no substitute for the full resettlement services and permanent residence that refugee status offers,” she said in a statement posted on Twitter. “As a result of prioritizing parole over rebuilding the refugee program, displaced children and families of many nationalities continue to languish in years-long backlogs.”

World Relief praised the decision but called on the Biden administration and Congress to engage more resources and enact reforms to strengthen U.S. refugee and asylum programs that help individuals and families seeking protection from persecution. These actions could lead to reaching the goal of resettling 125,000 refugees and support their integration within the United States.

“The 125,000 ceiling for fiscal year 2023 is a welcome goal,” said World Relief U.S. Director for Church Mobilization and Advocacy Matthew Soerens. “However, it’s also the same goal that the U.S. has fallen short of by roughly 100,000 refugees in the fiscal year [2022] …, which demonstrates that setting a relatively high refugee ceiling is not sufficient.”

World Relief also called on the administration to provide due process for asylum seekers who reach the U.S. and to overhaul the refugee resettlement program so as to allow more people access to safety without having to undertake dangerous journeys to the U.S. border.