Stranded migrants from Haiti remain at a makeshift camp in Necocli, Colombia, on Sept. 24, 2021. Thousands of migrants remain stranded in a Colombian port town as they wait for boats to cross into neighboring Panama on their way to the U.S., a state relief agency said. (Photo by Raul ARBOLEDA / AFP) (Photo by RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden White House has ended its first fiscal year with a stunning new record: admitting the lowest number of refugees to the U.S. ever since the Refugee Act passed in 1980. 

Refugee advocates say they had seen the bleak numbers written on the wall, at least since President Joe Biden walked back a promise in April to raise the annual refugee admission cap to 62,500, which had been slashed to 15,000 under former President Donald Trump.

“At a time when there is a historical need for refugee resettlement, it is disheartening,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “But we also knew, when we strongly advocated to the Biden administration to increase the number, that some of that increase was going to be symbolic.”

The U.S. admitted just 11,411 refugees in fiscal year 2021, which ended Sept. 30., per State Department records. More refugees—53,716—were admitted during fiscal year 2017, after Trump entered office. For refugees and those maintaining the country’s beleaguered resettlement program, which had been buoyed by Biden’s commitment to reverse Trump-era limits on refugees and immigrants, it’s a major blow.

Vignarajah says the Trump-era funding cuts to the country’s resettlement infrastructure were likely the biggest driver of the past year’s low admissions. Resettlement agencies receive federal funding per refugee they help with resettlement, and with their funding evaporating, about 100 local resettlement offices around the U.S. were forced to close down or suspend services. Her own organization, LIRS, one of nine refugee resettlement agencies working with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, lost about a third of its footprint and had to shutter 17 offices nationwide. Through “extreme vetting” measures and staff cuts, the refugee admissions apparatus was stretched far beyond its capacity. The pandemic, too, complicated logistics, including in-person interviews.

But it wasn’t just the Trump administration that brought refugee resettlement in the U.S. to this point. Experts say the current administration also made critical missteps in its own rollout, leaving tens of thousands of already approved refugees trapped in limbo.

“I don’t think the administration moved fast enough to prioritize building the refugee resettlement infrastructure,” said Reva Dhingra, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University researching refugees and humanitarian action. While Trump-era policies and budget cuts had constricted every part of the resettlement pipeline, she said, the Biden administration was also slow to live up to its commitments.

In February, in his first foreign policy speech as president, Biden promised to raise the refugee ceiling to 125,000 in fiscal year 2022. In the following days, the administration notified Congress that the State Dept. would allow up to 62,500 refugees for fiscal year 2021.

But for three months, the president did not officially sign off on a new ceiling to allow these admissions, effectively maintaining Trump’s strict cap.

In the meantime, the State Dept. had to cancel more than 715 refugees’ flights to the U.S, arranged in anticipation of the increased ceiling, despite each of them having already been cleared for resettlement. The government had not followed through on Biden’s promise to readjust Trump’s regional restrictions, which banned arrivals from 13 countries and targeted Muslim-majority and African countries. Nor had the government adjusted Trump-era refugee classification system, which prioritized Iraqis who had worked for the U.S. military and individuals facing religious persecution, effectively precluding most Muslim and African refugees from entry. 

Last spring, refugees and advocates found themselves impatiently waiting for Biden to sign off on the revised admissions goal.

“Every day that passes without a revised Presidential Determination leaves hundreds of refugee families in limbo in refugee camps and many waiting to be reunited with their loved ones here in the U.S. waiting for us to uphold our promise to protect,” one coalition of refugee leaders wrote in an impassioned plea to Biden. 

In April, the administration announced that Biden would maintain sharply restricted Trump-era ceilings on refugee admissions, but would remove Trump-era region-based caps on resettlement which critics had widely decried as discriminatory. The statement marked the first time ever that a president announced a lower refugee cap than proposed to Congress.

Faced by a wave of fierce backlash from Democratic lawmakers and refugee advocates, the administration reversed course. In early May, Biden signed off a revised ceiling of 62,500. 

“It is important to take this action today to remove any lingering doubt in the minds of refugees around the world who have suffered so much, and who are anxiously waiting for their new lives to begin,” Biden said, acknowledging that the 62,500 was aspirational rather than realistic. 

But for many refugees and advocates, the three-and-a-half-month delay was far from heartening. No official justifications emerged for the decisions, which advocates say seriously dampened momentum on refugee resettlement.

“The only explanation that seemed to come out implicitly was the fact that they were worried about optics with the border,” Dhingra said. Because of the public panic around immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, she suggested, the White House may have been wary of increasing refugee admissions at the same time.

Though Biden’s press secretary has denied any relation to increased migrant crossings at the Southern border, The New York Times’ reporting has revealed that Biden refused to increase the cap while juggling a border crisis.

The administration has now put its challenged refugee resettlement program on pause to prioritize Afghan evacuation and resettlement. Most Afghans have been admitted and processed in the U.S. through a temporary humanitarian parole program, separate from the refugee program.

For the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1 and stretches through Sept. 30, 2022, the administration hopes to admit 125,000 refugees.

For any chance at meeting that goal, experts say, the administration needs to act aggressively to move through its backlog and expand its capacity. Vignarajah is pushing the administration to add staff overseas, hold more remote interviews, and streamline its application process.

“We routinely resettle families that haven’t just been waiting for protection for a couple of years,” she said. “In many cases, they’ve been waiting for a decade or two. We can’t lose a generation of refugee children because the system is backlogged and dysfunctional.”

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan is a journalist in Boston. She covers religion and culture with a focus on American Muslim communities.