To the millions of refugees forced from their homes by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden’s announcement last week that the United States is preparing to “welcome 100,000 Ukrainians to the United States, with a focus on reuniting families,” came as a welcome surprise.
But humanitarian watchdogs say that they have received almost no word of how the Biden administration plans to actually admit 100,000 Ukrainians into the country—much less how it plans to fix a refugee resettlement system that is already in crisis.
“There were no discussions with refugee resettlement organizations and advocacy groups regarding the 100,000 Ukrainians before the announcement was made,” said Alexandra Plazas Rocha, senior communications director for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which helps resettle refugees in the United States. “At this point, we don’t know how the administration is going to be moving forward with its plan, so we don’t really know exactly what to focus our advocacy on.”
Nonprofits that work with the State Department to bring refugees into the United States warn that the previous administration’s war of attrition against the refugee resettlement system has yet to be addressed by the Biden administration beyond general support for the concept of increasing refugee admissions. With other major refugee crises around the world in need of U.S. attention, that lack of information threatens to exacerbate the problems those nonprofits already face.
“Key concerns of the resettlement agencies are how not just Ukrainians but all the others from elsewhere—like Afghanistan or Burma or Syria or Ethiopia—waiting for refugee or humanitarian parole or family unification processing will be facilitated,” said Dr. Yael Schacher, deputy director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International, who said that this was particularly true in Afghanistan, where the American withdrawal last August threw even more weight onto the shoulders of weakened refugee resettlement organizations.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) told The Daily Beast the Trump administration’s damage to the system is evident in the roadblocks her constituents are running into as they try to welcome Ukrainians into their homes.
“We’re hearing from people in New Hampshire who want to be helpful in bringing Ukrainians to New Hampshire and helping in any way that we can,” Shaheen, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, told The Daily Beast. “So I think there is a vast pool of volunteers who could be helpful. That’s obviously… going to take some training and some organization and we have a system of refugee resettlement that was really dismantled under the Trump administration that needs to be rebuilt.”
Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS), who just returned from a visit to the countries bordering Ukraine, suggested the number is likely just a talking point.
“I think that this group of people wants to go back home, their husbands, their dads, their brothers are fighting,” Marshall told The Daily Beast. “I don’t think 100,000 will come here… almost every person that we talked to, they want to go home.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a co-chair of the Congressional Refugee Caucus, admitted Biden’s number might not tally with the reality on the ground.
“It’s not clear how many of the refugees want to come to the U.S. as compared to waiting because most of them want to go back,” Lofgren said.
Refugee advocates are concerned the administration might be firing off talking points without much heft behind them once again.
Biden’s promise to admit as many as 100,000 Ukrainians, first announced last week while the president was in Brussels for emergency meetings with NATO and allied leaders in response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last month, echoes his commitment in May 2021 to double the government’s cap on refugee admissions into the United States to a limit of 125,000 people. At the time, Biden vowed that raising the cap would “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,” but as The Daily Beast reported before Biden’s newest pledge, fewer than 6,500 people have actually been allowed into the country through refugee resettlement programs five months into the fiscal year.
There are many reasons behind that immense shortfall—from a lack of funding and available employees for refugee resettlement organizations to the COVID-19 pandemic to redirected resources aimed at helping Afghans enter the United States through non-refugee programs. But according to the Biden administration’s newly released budget proposal, the 125,000-person cap is going to remain in place for the next fiscal year, which could stretch those resources extremely thin.
“That number seems kind of low,” said Melanie Nezer, the senior vice president for global public affairs at HIAS, one of the country’s oldest nonprofits that provides relocation assistance to refugees. With the ongoing refugee crises in Syria, Myanmar, Cameroon and now the displacement of millions of refugees across Central Europe, Nezer said, “the needs of refugees from other parts of the world have not decreased.”
“Resettlement is not the option for everybody—it’s for people who have no other options.”
Biden’s new budget proposal calls for $6.3 billion for the State Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement for Fiscal Year 2023—an increase of more than $4 billion from his 2020 budget proposal—which refugee advocates say is critical to reviving a system that was purposely underfunded under former President Donald Trump, who openly despised the concept of admitting refugees from “shithole countries.”
“Refugee resettlement continues at a glacial pace, and significant investments and innovations are required to ensure the Biden administration’s intentions can be made reality,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project. “We look forward to receiving more details about the program to protect vulnerable Ukrainians and encourage the administration to issue a clear plan to fulfill its promise to rebuild the refugee admissions program as a whole.”
Some of the biggest details, however, remain unknown.
In the fact sheet released by the White House announcing Biden’s pledge, the administration declared that it was “working to expand and develop new programs with a focus on welcoming Ukrainians who have family members in the United States.”
That program, so far, remains in the abstract phase, according to lawmakers and leaders of resettlement organizations.
“There were some informal conversations about possible pathways to bring Ukrainians to the U.S. in the lead up to the announcement but very limited details solidified or worked out,” said Schacher, who noted that while further meetings between resettlement agencies and advocates are being scheduled to better understand the scale of Biden’s promise, most details are “not worked out yet.”
Senators Shaheen and Marshall both said they haven’t been looped in on what that new program might entail.
The administration has publicly emphasized that many of the Ukrainians who will hopefully end up in the United States will not necessarily be entering through the refugee resettlement program per se. Many will instead be entering to be reunited with family members who already have some sort of legal status or residency—a prospect that the administration made easier by granting Temporary Protected Status last month to tens of thousands of Ukrainians already living in the United States.
Biden’s resettlement pitch, while not yet formed, is politically popular. An Associated Press-NORC poll conducted in mid-March found that a full two-thirds of Americans support accepting refugees from Ukraine, with only 13 percent opposing doing so.
But that support is only so useful without a real roadmap to widescale admissions, Nezer said.
“We have a very committed American population that wants to welcome these refugees,” said Nezer, noting that the outpouring of support for Ukrainian admissions was nearly matched when Americans were asked to help Afghans seeking safety. “We have a mobilized citizenry that wants to help and wants to volunteer and wants to support resettlement, but it’s very hard to plan—even with all that energy—because we don’t know what the plan is.”