While some proponents of Trump’s restrictive immigration policies have expressed wariness over Biden’s announcement expanding refugee resettlements, refugee advocates say his goals cannot be reached by simply raising the admissions cap.
Christopher Boian, senior communications officer at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said another monumental hurdle to helping refugees is the coronavirus.
“There will be a number of challenges, including on the funding level, on the staffing level, on just getting these processes up and going again. But arguably the biggest, or one of the biggest, challenges at the moment to getting that program back to the robust levels that the U.S. administration has said it would like to see is the COVID pandemic,” he said.
Time to rebuild
Faith-based groups that assist the U.S. government in its refugee resettlement program said rebuilding the program will not happen overnight.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), said LIRS has begun rebuilding at the local level.
“So, that is rehiring staff that were lost over the last four years because of firings and furloughs. Part of it is working with local, state and federal governments to renew the certifications for the offices that had closed to allow them to restart,” she said.
The refugee ceiling is the maximum number of refugees who can be resettled in the United States each year.
According to Yael Schacher, senior U.S. advocate at Refugee International, over 35,000 refugees had been approved by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) as of December 2020.
“Though a much smaller number — closer to 1,000 — were ready to depart,” she added.
The president sets the refugee ceiling before the beginning of the fiscal year in October. He sends the plans for congressional review. According to the U.S. State Department, about 11,814 refugees arrived in the United States in fiscal year 2020.
Schacher said resettlement was not the only thing that slowed down in the last four years.
“People who are resettled in the United States already, who came as refugees, have the ability to apply to have their family members to resettle as refugees, as well. (But) the process of doing that got extremely slow under the Trump administration,” she said.
Alicia Wrenn, senior director of resettlement and integration at HIAS, one of the nine nonprofits that help resettle refugees in the U.S., said HIAS is once again ramping up a network of partners to help newly arrived refugees. She noted it is highly specialized work.
“They have the language skills to work with clients. They have the cultural sensitivity, the trauma awareness that really is required in refugee services,” she said.
Backers of Trump’s immigration agenda warn against undoing policies they view as going the extra step to ensure America’s safety by taking in fewer refugees and subjecting the remainder to more rigorous background checks and security vetting.
Lora Ries, senior research fellow at the conservative Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said there was a review of the vetting program at the beginning of the Trump administration that should be repeated by successive administrations, not discarded.
“It should not be thrown out [by the new administration] just because Trump's name was attached to it,” she told VOA.
Biden’s executive order includes a request for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary to “consider” ways to “expand refugee vetting and adjudication capacity,” including “permitting the use of video and audio teleconferencing to conduct refugee interviews and establishing the necessary infrastructure to do so.”
Vignarajah said she expects refugee vetting to remain thorough, adding that refugees fall into a low-security risk category.
“There is this claim, which isn't actually true that refugees are potentially criminals or terrorists. The truth is that a refugee is far less likely to commit any sort of crime than a native born American. And yet, what we see, or we saw with the Trump administration, was additional layers of vetting were added, some of which had no credence or rationale behind them,” she said.
A Morning Consult/Politico survey, conducted earlier this month among 1,986 registered voters, shows three in five Republicans “strongly oppose” raising the refugee cap to 125,000, while 61% of Democratic voters support the expansion, including 33% who “strongly support” it.
While the Biden administration reboots America’s refugee program, Ibrahim hopes living in limbo will soon be over.
“I would love to go and settle in another country to leave the life of uncertainty that I have lived with here (in Nairobi) for so many years, and live a better life,” he said.
Mohammed Yusuf contributed to this article from Nairobi