President Joe Biden set the annual refugee cap at 125,000 last October, but as of July, the program has allowed in only 17,690 refugees. Advocates say that the Biden administration is going to fall short of its ambitious target for fiscal 2022, but they note the refugee program is still rebuilding.
Biden is expected to set a new ceiling in October.
"While some progress has been made, the pace of admissions remains woefully low amid unprecedented global displacement," said Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
But she also said official refugee admissions numbers do not tell the entire story.
"More than 70,000 Afghans and approximately 60,000 Ukrainians have entered the country on humanitarian parole in the past year. These populations are not counted towards the refugee target, but resettlement nonprofits have stepped up to assist them," she wrote in an email to VOA.
The number of refugees allowed under the U.S. refugee admissions program was dramatically cut during the Trump administration, including funding and staff. Nonprofit refugee resettlement agencies work alongside the federal government. With the lower cap and fewer refugees to resettle. Federal funding dried up, offices closed and staff members were let go because eventually there was almost no one for them to welcome.
Biden is expected to set a new ceiling Oct. 1, but challenges associated with the pandemic and resource allocation remain, O'Mara Vignarajah said in her email to VOA.
"The federal government has had to navigate the fallout of one crisis after another, between the fall of Kabul and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This dynamic underscores the urgent need to rebuild the refugee program because temporary Band-Aids, like humanitarian parole, aren't a sustainable solution. Nowhere is that more evident than in the tens of thousands of Afghans who find themselves in legal limbo because they were not technically admitted as refugees," she wrote in her email.
Humanitarian parole is special permission given to those hoping to enter the United States under emergency circumstances. Though it does not automatically lead to permanent residency, the "parolees" can apply for legal status, either through the asylum process or other forms of sponsorship, if available, once they're in the U.S.
Meanwhile, anyone who resettles in the U.S. under the refugee program has a direct path to permanent residence and eventually U.S. citizenship, a process that still takes years.
Refugee agencies still rebuilding
Lourena Gboeah, a social worker and chair of the board of the U.S.-based advocacy group Refugee Congress, said lower refugee caps came with massive budget cuts, forcing at least one-third of resettlement agencies to close.
And though nonprofits are still rebuilding and a new ceiling has not yet been announced, Refugee Congress and other organizations such as the Refugee Advocacy Lab sent a letter to the Biden administration, urging it to meet its goals for resettling international refugees in the United States.
Gboeah said the letter, with more than 240 signatures and bipartisan support, also asks for a "robust" refugee ceiling for the new fiscal year.
Her organization has been working with state and local elected officials.
"We're basically requesting support in terms of funding to be able to have enough staff at these affiliate agencies and to be able to receive these people," she said.
In a March briefing with reporters, a State Department official said efforts to rebuild the refugee program were ongoing.
"It's still a work in progress," said Brian McKeon, the deputy secretary of state for management and resources. "But you saw in the course of the fall and the winter 75,000 Afghans who were evacuated from Afghanistan and brought to the United States have now been resettled in communities around the United States. So, we have provided refuge to those 75,000 Afghans and are using some of the lessons learned from that effort to continue to rebuild the broader refugee assistance program," he added.
According to the U.N. refugee agency, there are nine national resettlement agencies with more than 350 local affiliates throughout the U.S. And it falls on them to make the resettlement process work, which includes helping recent arrivals find housing, jobs and English classes; helping them register their children in public schools; and showing them where to get groceries and how to perform other simple tasks.
To meet any new refugee cap, researchers and refugee advocates say they need legislation that offers assurance of funding and a mandated refugee ceiling.
But Dany Bahar, a nonresident senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution, told VOA that proposals that involve immigration or refugee issues do not seem like a fight Democrats want right now.
"I don't think that [the Biden administration] has gone all the way to significantly challenge what has happened in the past. … They haven't been willing or able to pick that fight. A little bit with Ukraine, but still, even in Ukraine, the U.S. opened its doors to 100,000 refugees. … That's such a small number. [There are] 6 million people fleeing. It's very symbolic but nothing more than that," Bahar told VOA.
Yet, the Guaranteed Refugee Admissions Ceiling Enhancement Act, or GRACE Act, which was been introduced in Congress twice but not passed, would set that number to 125,000 and offer refugee resettlement agencies a long-lasting obligation from the federal government, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats are in the White House.
"We're talking about the lives of people who are fleeing persecution, seeking safety in the U.S. … no matter which administration comes in, that ceiling should not be changed," Gboeah said.