Biden Sets Stage For Largest Number of Refugee Admissions in Three Decades

Patrick Goodenough | February 4, 2021 | 8:45pm EST
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President Joe Biden speaks at the State Department on Thursday. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden speaks at the State Department on Thursday. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

( – President Joe Biden signaled on Thursday that the United States will in the next fiscal year aim to admit the largest number of refugees in almost three decades.

The refugee admission ceiling for fiscal year 2022, which begins on October 1 this year, will be 125,000, Biden said at the State Department.

That number is 15,000 more than the highest cap set during the Obama-Biden administration (Its proposal of 110,000, for FY 2017, would have been the highest since FY 1995. It did not survive, however, as President Trump, days after his inauguration, signed an executive order lowering it to 50,000 admissions.)

The 125,000 ceiling announced Thursday is the highest set since FY 1993, although actual admissions that year were somewhat below the ceiling, reaching only 119,448. If the FY 2022 admissions reach Biden’s ceiling they will constitute the largest number of refugees to be resettled in the U.S. in one year since 1992, when 132,531 arrived.

The highest ceiling announced by an administration since the modern-day refugee admission program was established was 231,700, set by the Carter administration for FY 1980. Actual admissions in that record year were 207,116, the vast majority from southeast Asia and the then-Soviet Union.


Speaking at the State Department, Biden characterized the announcement as a bid to undo harm caused by his predecessor.

“The United States’ moral leadership on refugee issues was a point of bipartisan consensus for so many decades when I first got here,” he said. “We shined the light – lamp of liberty on oppressed people.  We offered safe havens for those fleeing violence or persecution. And our example pushed other nations to open wide their doors as well.”

“So 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 continued. “It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do.”

“This executive order will position us to be able to raise the refugee admissions back up to 125,000 persons, for the first full fiscal year of the Biden-Harris administration. And I’m directing the State Department to consult with Congress about making a down payment on that commitment as soon as possible.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement later he would seek in consultation with Congress to increase the refugee admissions “target” in the current fiscal year “significantly.”

The Trump administration last October set a refugee admission cap for the current fiscal year of just 15,000. It was its fifth consecutive reduction of the annual ceiling, each one of which set a new record low at the time it was announced: 15,000 in FY 2021, 18,000 refugees in FY 2020, 30,000 in FY 2019, 45,000 in FY 2018, and 50,000 in FY 2017.

The number of actual admissions in FY 2020, 11,814 refugees, was the lowest annual number in more than 40 years.

The State Department Refugee Processing Center recently stopped a tool that provided refugee admission data on a daily-updated basis. Its most recent arrival report says that just 998 refugees had been resettled between the start of the current fiscal year on October 1, and December 31, 2020.

Of them, roughly one-third came from Africa (mostly Democratic Republic of Congo), one-third from Europe (mostly from Ukraine), and the rest from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Near East and South Asia.

(Graph: / Data: State Department)
(Graph: / Data: State Department)

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) criticized Biden’s announcement.

“Increasing the refugee admissions cap to its highest point in three decades will put American jobs and safety at risk during a pandemic,” he said. “We’re only one week into the Biden administration and its immigration policies are already putting Americans last.”

Refugee resettlement agencies applauded the move.

“With 80 million forcibly displaced people worldwide and counting – the largest number since the Second World War – restoring the U.S.’ longstanding and bipartisan resettlement program is absolutely critical,” said Hans van de Weerd, vice president for resettlement, asylum and integration at the International Rescue Committee. “The U.S. needs to fix its own reputation and incentivize other rich countries by welcoming refugees in greater numbers, after record lows during the Trump administration.”

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said Biden’s “commitment to significantly raise the refugee admissions ceiling is a bold recognition of the scope and scale of the worst global displacement crisis in history.”

International law defines as refugees those who have fled their home country and is unable or unwilling to return because of a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.

A White House fact sheet Thursday said Biden’s executive order will among other things rescind Trump policies that “required excessive vetting of applicants.” It will also “enhance access for the most vulnerable refugees, including women, children, and those at risk of persecution because of their gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”

In a presidential determination in late 2019, setting a refugee admissions ceiling for FY 2020, Trump reserved 22 percent of the places (4,000 of the 18,000 ceiling) for those fleeing religious persecution.

Specifically, the category applied to applicants “who have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion,” or to those falling in a category listed in the 1989 Lautenberg Amendment – which granted priority status to Soviet Jews, Vietnamese nationals and others minorities seeking refuge – and its 2004 extension, which covers persecuted religious minorities in Iran.

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