U.S. Resumes Refugee Admissions After Temporary Pause

It's a welcome move after refugee resettlement hit a record low in fiscal year 2021.


The United States will restart refugee admissions this week after a temporary freeze, CNN reported on Monday. Admissions stopped in November 2021 so the U.S. government could devote resources to processing and resettling tens of thousands of newly arrived Afghan evacuees.

Since November, only certain classes of refugees have been eligible for travel to the U.S., including those who need to reunite with family, have "urgent cases," or whose medical and security screenings were soon expiring.

"As of January 11, there are no restrictions on refugee travel," a State Department spokesperson told CNN. Refugees who have completed the necessary screenings and processing will now be allowed to travel to the U.S.

"Our resettlement program is designed to protect the most vulnerable refugees around the world, those who remain in danger even after fleeing persecution in their homes and homeland," says Danilo Zak, a policy and advocacy manager at the National Immigration Forum. "The end of this pause on resettlement is unequivocally good news."

The U.S. admitted 11,411 refugees in fiscal year 2021, well below a revised cap of 62,500 for the year. It's the lowest number admitted since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, which established the modern U.S. refugee system.

"We need to ask why capacity remains so diminished a year into Biden's presidency," says Zak. "How can we grow a robust and resilient resettlement system that is able to welcome refugees and respond to urgent humanitarian crises like the Afghan evacuation?"

Much of the decline during President Joe Biden's first year in office stems from the Trump administration's reduction of refugee admissions. Under former President Donald Trump, low numbers of incoming refugees led to about one-third of local resettlement offices closing or suspending operations around the country. Between the weakened agency infrastructure and pandemic-era processing difficulties, the low intake was unsurprising.

Already strained, the U.S. refugee system was further disrupted in late 2021 by the mass evacuation of vulnerable people from Afghanistan. Almost 55,000 Afghans have been resettled across the country and over 20,000 are still housed on domestic military bases as of January 6.

Zak says the Biden administration has not yet "justified the choice to pause resettlement with data," noting that its release of basic information regarding resettlements is often delayed. "We haven't received any refugee data from the administration for December, so we can't know exactly how harmful this pause was," he continues.

Still, the resumption of admissions is a good thing for both refugees and the U.S. Refugees who have long been approved for resettlement will be able to cash in on their invitations and escape whatever danger they face. Meanwhile, net international migration to the U.S. added only 247,000 to the population between 2020 and 2021, the lowest level in decades—particularly concerning in the face of ongoing labor shortages and slow population growth. International migration to the U.S. can help solve both issues, provided the government improves its lethargic processing of migrants.

Now that refugee admissions have restarted, Biden will try to make good on his campaign promise to raise resettlement numbers from the lows seen under Trump, though the current pace will make it difficult for his administration to achieve its desired levels. While more than 2,000 refugees have arrived in the U.S. since the end of November, the cap for fiscal year 2022 is 125,000.