The Biden administration admitted 11,411 refugees to the U.S. in fiscal year 2021, falling far short of the president’s refugee admissions cap of 62,500 for that year.
The new number of admitted refugees, released by the State Department this week, is about a fifth of the cap for the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30 and is the lowest number of people admitted through the Refugee Act since it passed in 1980.
The administration is working to reverse the hardline policies set by former President Donald Trump, who curtailed the number of refugees allowed to come to the U.S. and placed limitations on who is eligible. In addition, the coronavirus pandemic has complicated the administration’s resettlement process for refugees.
President Joe Biden established a new annual cap in May after facing pressure from Democratic lawmakers and immigration advocates to quickly increase the meager 15,000-refugee ceiling that Trump put in place before leaving office.
On Friday, Biden increased the cap to 125,000 for fiscal year 2022, which he vowed to do months earlier.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement last month that the president was consulting Congress about his intentions to raise the refugee cap for the first full fiscal year of his presidency.
“A robust refugee admissions program is critical to U.S. foreign policy interests and national security objectives, and is a reflection of core American values,” Price said in the statement. By law, presidents must consult with Congress before determining how many refugees should be allowed each fiscal year.
Biden conceded in May that the caps are unlikely to be reached, citing work to undo “the damage of the last four years” under Trump.
During fiscal year 2017, when Trump took office, the State Department reported only 53,716 refugees admitted into the U.S. This is a decline from the 84,994 refugees admitted during the previous fiscal year under former President Barack Obama, who set the refugee ceiling for that year to 85,000.
The low number of refugee admissions under the Trump administration has also gutted the U.S. resettlement infrastructure, with several agencies shutting down their offices. According to a report by the Penn Biden Center from last year, about a third of local resettlement offices across the country closed or suspended operations as of April 2019.
By the end of December 2020, fewer than 1,000 refugees had been processed under Trump’s 15,000 cap for fiscal year 2021, according to State Department data.
Bill Frelick, director of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that the Trump administration “decimated the refugee settlement infrastructure.”
“The Biden administration could not be expected to rebuild it in a day,” Frelick said in the statement Thursday.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, also highlighted the former president’s role in the “record-low” refugee admission numbers in a statement Monday.
“We are saddened but unsurprised by the record-low admission figures for this fiscal year,” O’Mara Vignarajah said in the statement. “It speaks to the lasting damage of the Trump administration’s four-year assault on the refugee program.”
She noted that the global pandemic has also hindered refugee resettlement efforts.
“Rebuilding the program from the rubble has further been complicated by the pandemic, which has largely prevented the federal government from processing a robust pipeline of refugee arrivals,” O’Mara Vignarajah said.
The State Department cited the pandemic as a reason for the low refugee admission figures as well.
A department spokesperson told CNBC that the pandemic continued to “drastically curtail” the normal operations of the refugee resettlement process. For example, it prevented officers from conducting in-person interviews abroad with refugees hoping to come to the U.S. and limited the operations of resettlement support centers.
“We remain constrained by COVID but we have adjusted and we expect to see arrival numbers continue to reflect our increased efforts,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement Friday.
The Biden administration is working to rebuild the refugee processing capacity in fiscal year 2022, the spokesperson said. They noted plans to bolster resettlement support centers and have a “robust resumption” of interviews that will be held both virtually and in person.
“Our review of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program revealed that it will take some time to build back toward the numbers to which the President has committed,” the spokesperson said in the statement. “The rebuilding process is well underway and will enable us to support much increased admissions numbers in future years. ”