Refugee advocates urge Biden to ‘rebuild’ US asylum system

The Biden administration must address curbs to the US asylum system that worsened under Trump, refugee groups say.

Trump Refugees
Residents in support of continued refugee resettlement hold signs at a meeting in Bismarck, North Dakota, in 2019 [File: James MacPherson/AP Photo]

Refugee advocates in the United States are calling on President-elect Joe Biden to reverse some of Donald Trump’s most restrictive immigration policies, including historic-low admission quotas for asylum seekers, when he takes office in January.

Rebuilding the US refugee programme may take time, said Becca Heller, executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) advocacy group, but it is critical for thousands of asylum seekers waiting for their claims to be heard.

“The refugee program may take some time to rebuild, but the thousands of refugees who have already been waiting in limbo for years don’t have any more time,” Heller told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement.

The US Refugee Admissions Program was severely limited under the Trump administration, which has enacted increasingly restrictive refugee admission quotas and slashed refugee acceptance by more than 80 percent from the last year of former President Barack Obama’s administration.

IRAP released recommendations on Friday for the incoming Biden administration to address refugee and asylum seeker admissions into the country – and “rebuild” that federal admissions programme.

The recommendations, Expanding Complementary Pathways for Refugees and Displaced Persons: A Blueprint for the US Government (PDF), point to six main areas where action can be taken, including family reunification, private sponsorship and labour pathways for refugees.

Increased targets

Biden has signalled his openness to expanding refugee admissions.

He promised to set a refugee admissions target of 125,000 a year and work with Congress to establish a minimum admissions number of at least 95,000 refugees annually in June, on World Refugee Day, in line with historical averages.

This would be a sharp change from Trump’s measures: the Republican president’s final presidential determination on refugee admissions to the US set the cap at 15,000, the lowest since the Refugee Act of 1980 was enacted.

Biden also reportedly plans on restoring DACA, the Obama-era programme that protects from deportation undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children, and end the so-called “Muslim Ban” that now bars travellers from 13 countries, not all of which have a Muslim majority.

The incoming Biden administration is also expected to put in place a 100-day freeze on deportations until updated guidance is issued.

US President-elect Joe Biden removes his face mask to speak in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 16 [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

IRAP’s recommendations are lengthy, given the complexity of US asylum and refugee resettlement programmes, which work with a wide array of organisations, from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) to local governments.

Many local resettlement agencies receive funds in line with the number of refugees that arrive in the US.

That means that lower refugee resettlement admissions during the Trump administration have financially strained many of these groups, causing some to close, which could make resettlement more difficult in certain areas.

But IRAP welcomed Biden’s initial promises and emphasised that the “new administration should make efforts on Day One to put programs in place that reunite families and protect those in danger”, Heller said.

Among its recommendations, the group wanted Biden to issue executive orders that address “undue delays” and state that “family unity is a national priority”.

It also wanted Biden to help mitigate issues resulting from Trump’s restrictive policies, which have created bottlenecks and kept families apart – either through forcible separation or extended application processing times.

‘A messy patchwork’

JC Hendrickson, senior director of public policy at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a global relief organisation that helps with refugee resettlement in the US, told Al Jazeera he welcomed Biden’s promises to expand refugee admissions and rescind Trump policies.

“But the US asylum system needs a good hard look. It’s a messy patchwork of different laws and statutes and regulations,” Hendrickson told Al Jazeera in an interview.

The IRC has released its own recommendations, both on issues on the US-Mexico border and the refugee admissions programme, including a new, in-depth study of the programme.

No such study has been conducted since 2005, and Hendrickson said the global need for resettlement has increased during the past 15 years, spurred in large part by conflict, economic fluctuations, climate change and other issues.


Many asylum seekers who reach the US-Mexico border come from countries that are grappling with these issues, whether it be security concerns from organised crime or the recent hurricanes that have battered Central America.

But at the border, they meet “policies being determined by cruelty” that limit “access to long-standing pathways” to safely seek asylum, Hendrickson said.

That includes the “Remain in Mexico” policy that forces asylum seekers to stay in Mexico until their court hearings can be held in the US.

While Biden has much to do in his first 100 days – an early measure for judging a new president’s effectiveness – Hendrickson said it will be necessary to create “a series of new policies” to protect asylum seekers.

Addressing the issues in the US asylum and refugee systems facing “is a huge task”, he said. “The world will be watching how we manage this.”

Source: Al Jazeera