When it comes to resettling refugees, the Biden administration is bringing back a proud American tradition. Up until 2017, the United States had long resettled more refugees per year than every other country combined. But the Trump administration slashed refugee admissions by more than 80 percent, eventually bringing down the cap on refugees to a record low of 15,000.
President Biden delivered on his campaign promise to raise that limit to 125,000 in the first full fiscal year of his term in office. But despite that swift reversal in the limit put on refugee admissions, the actual number of people resettled in the United States was still very low: In 2021, the country admitted just over 25,000 refugees — a welcome improvement from the Trump years, to be sure, but still well below the annual cap. Last year this editorial board joined immigration advocates in calling on the Biden administration to dramatically streamline the admission process.
As it turns out, the White House seems to have done exactly that. By bolstering staff, the Biden administration was able to rapidly increase the number of interviews conducted by refugee officers, going from 44,000 in 2022 to over 90,000 in 2023. Unnecessary delays in the refugee admissions process — like the need to complete each step individually before being able to schedule the next appointments — have also been curtailed. Roderick Conrad, the director for processing at the International Rescue Committee, told the editorial board that his organization, which helps resettle refugees, has noticed a dramatic improvement. Indeed, as of August, the United States had resettled over 51,000 refugees within the last fiscal year, more than doubling the previous year’s numbers.
While that still falls short of reaching the 125,000 ceiling, it’s already the highest number since 2016 — and that doesn’t include September’s data, the last month of the fiscal year. That marks a sharp U-turn from the Trump administration’s approach to dealing with the global refugee crisis, and the Biden administration deserves credit for its effort on this front.
After the administration reportedly considered further raising the cap, it announced late last month that it will maintain the ceiling at 125,000 but expand the number of people coming into the refugee admissions program from Latin America in order to address the increased migration in the region and the influx of asylum seekers crossing the US border. (While asylum seekers are, in practical terms, often fleeing their countries for the same reason as refugees, there’s a legal distinction between the two: Refugees apply for entry from abroad, while asylum seekers do so once they reach American soil and don’t count toward that refugee cap.) Experts anticipate that the United States will likely come much closer to admitting 125,000 refugees than the last two years, hopefully setting the stage for raising the cap even further.
These are all promising signs, but there is more that the United States should do. Most importantly, it must address the legal limbo that the vast majority of refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan have been put under in recent years. In order to quickly deal with the surge in people fleeing those countries, the United States granted tens of thousands of Ukrainian and Afghan refugees “parole” status. That may have been a useful stopgap measure aimed at diverting people from the bottleneck in the US Refugee Admissions Program at the time, but the long-term problem is that people with parole status can only stay in the United States temporarily and have no clear pathway to citizenship.
That’s why Congress must pass both the Afghan Adjustment Act and the Ukrainian Adjustment Act, both of which would grant those parolees a permanent legal status and a pathway to citizenship. Those are unique measures aimed at unique circumstances so they aren’t part of a longer term approach to further improving the refugee admissions process but they are a necessary step to resettle people who may otherwise have nowhere else to go.
In the meantime, the Biden administration should remain steadfast in its commitment to fixing the US Refugee Admissions Program and reaffirm America’s place in the world as a home for people fleeing disasters in search of a better life.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.