Pathy and Acastela Mulema were separated from their 5- and 6-year-old daughters when their home was attacked in the Central African Republic in 2013. The couple lived five years in a refugee camp in Ghana and resettled in Newark, Delaware in 2018. Then they learned that their daughters were alive and living in a refugee camp.
The girls were waiting to come to the U.S. but President Joe Biden's delay in increasing the refugee resettlement ceiling further postponed their trip. Finally, on May 3, Biden announced that the U.S. will admit up to 62,500 refugees by the end of the year, an important first step in rebuilding the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and essential for the reunion of so many families like the Mulemas.
Despite his commitment to do so at the start of his presidency, until now Biden had kept in place the former president’s ceiling of 15,000, the lowest in the 41-year proud bipartisan program. Concern over the increasing number of migrants arriving at the southern border caused the delay.
But a robust resettlement program is actually part of the solution: Increasing resettlement from Latin America to the U.S., as President Biden is doing, will protect people from needing to risk life and limb to get to our border.
For starters, it’s important not to conflate the formal refugee resettlement system managed by the State Department and governed by the Refugee Act of 1980 — the program Biden is addressing -- with the current increase in irregular migration of asylum seekers arriving at the border. They are distinct and separate.
The U.S. asylum system starts when individuals arrive in the United States and apply for asylum. The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) starts abroad, when UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, and its partners identify and refer refugees to the U.S. government for resettlement consideration. This is largely based on vulnerability factors such as orphaned minors, survivors of torture and children separated from their parents who need to be reunited.
Refugees are carefully vetted. They are intensively interviewed by specially trained Department of Homeland Security Customs and Immigration officials far from our borders, and then undergo extensive security checks. Among the 26 million global refugees, fewer than 1% (less than 0.1% last year) fly to the U.S. each year. On average, since the program’s inception in 1980, America has resettled 76,000 refugees annually.
More than 1% of humanity is now forcibly displaced, a grim milestone.
Yet with so many migrants now arriving at the U.S. southern border, the million-dollar question is what to do. It's worth pointing out that in 2019 there was a similar spike in border crossings. This influx is driven largely by people seeking safety from destructive climate change and violence.
The migration route from Latin American to the U.S. border, with cartels and smugglers preying on children, has tragically led to many deaths. Identifying refugees while they are still in Latin America for resettlement to the U.S. will prevent them from risking that perilous journey and showing up at our southern border.
Resettlement has worked in this way in other parts of the world. For example, in 2015, a record 1.3 million people fled to European Union countries and applied for asylum. The desperate flights to safety have led to more than 17,000 drowning in the Mediterranean and many unaccompanied minors caught in brutal human trafficking.
In response, EU countries collectively committed to resettling 50,000 refugees and started programs to reunite unaccompanied children in Africa with parents in the EU. RefugePoint, an organization that helps refugees in danger to resettle, (and where the authors serve as executive director and board member respectively) is central to these efforts, which have protected many from risking dangerous journeys.
While immigration, particularly at the southern border, has become a partisan issue in the U.S. over the past few years, many Republicans welcome refugees — notably Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, former U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble from Wisconsin, as well as religious and national security leaders.
Moreover, Americans are in favor of immigration broadly, which is a driver of innovation, entrepreneurialism and the economy. A recent Gallup poll highlighted that 77% of American believe that “immigration is good for our country,” a view which has been both consistent and growing over the past decade.
Refugees add to that story of success. A 2017 study concluded that over the prior decade, they contributed $63 billion more to government revenue than they cost the taxpayer. They also serve on the frontlines of COVID response as nurses, doctors, drivers and health care workers.
Biden’s commitment includes implementing new strategies to expand resettlement such as offering Americans the opportunity to sponsor refugees. He emphasized the importance of resettlement, saying, “The United States has always strived to serve as a beacon of hope … I believe that resettling refugees helps reunite families, enriches the fabric of America, and enhances our standing, influence, and security in the world.”
More than 1% of humanity is now forcibly displaced, a grim milestone. Climate change will likely spark more conflict and displacement. President Biden’s vision of a robust resettlement program — he aims to welcome 125,000 in 2022 — will create safe pathways for those fleeing home in Latin America and elsewhere, inspire and guide global action, and benefit America. Biden’s announcement is the kind of 21st-century leadership needed in the world.