President Joe Biden speaks to staff of the US State Department during his first visit in Washington, DC, February 4, 2021.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
President Joe Biden announced Thursday he plans to raise the cap on the number of refugees allowed to enter the U.S. as he inherits a resettlement program whittled down by former President Donald Trump.
“Today, I’m approving an executive order to begin the hard work of restoring our refugee admissions program to help meet the unprecedented global need,” Biden said. “It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged.”
When Trump took office in 2017, the refugee ceiling for the fiscal year set by President Barack Obama stood at 110,000. Trump left office after setting a cap of just 15,000 for the current fiscal year — the lowest level since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980.
Biden pledged to increase the annual refugee admissions cap to 125,000 in the 12-month period starting Oct. 1. The president must consult Congress before setting the annual limit.
“We hope this signals that the U.S. is going to take a leadership role on resettling people who need it,” said Yael Schacher, senior U.S. advocate for independent advocacy group Refugees International. “This is a really important reset for the United States.”
The president also said he would issue a directive to agencies to promote LGBTQIA rights internationally, including protecting LGBTQIA refugees and asylum seekers.
Biden’s announcement comes after he signed executive orders Tuesday to create a task force to reunite migrant children with their families, address root causes of migration from Central America, and review the legal immigration system.
The decline in the number of refugee arrivals over the course of Trump’s presidency has gutted the country’s resettlement infrastructure, with agencies shuttering offices and laying off staff. Roughly a third of local resettlement offices across the country closed or suspended operations as of April 2019, according to an October report by the Penn Biden Center.
“The resettlement program has sustained a devastating hit,” said Refugee Council USA’s director of Policy and Practice Danielle Grigsby. “The administration’s swift action to increase refugee admissions will facilitate this lifesaving and community building program’s renewal.”
President Barack Obama set the refugee ceiling at 85,000 in fiscal year 2016, his last full fiscal year in office. The State Department reported 84,994 refugee arrivals during that time frame, the highest number since 1999.
The following fiscal year, during which Trump took office, the State Department reported only 53,716 arrivals.
The U.S. had led the world in refugee resettlements since 1980, until Canada took the top spot in 2018 and 2019, according to the latest United Nations reports.
Fewer than 1,000 refugees were processed by the end of December 2020 under Trump’s 15,000-person cap, State Department data shows.