The Biden administration plans to maintain refugee admissions to the United States at 125,000, according to a draft report obtained by CNN, and admit a larger share of refugees from the Western Hemisphere amid unprecedented movement in the region.
The upcoming year’s proposed refugee ceiling underscores the unique challenges the administration faces in Latin America, where people – fleeing deteriorating conditions exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic – have migrated in record numbers to the US-Mexico border.
The proposed changes would provide a legal avenue for migrants to come to the US, without journeying to the southern border.
The State Department has proposed admitting between 35,000 to 50,000 refugees from Latin America/the Caribbean in fiscal year 2024, according to the draft report. That’s up from 15,000 in fiscal year 2023, though only around 5,500 refugees from that region have been resettled in the US as of August 31, according to federal data.
The refugee ceiling dictates how many refugees can be admitted to the US, but the administration doesn’t have to hit that number. Last year, Biden set the number at 125,000. Officials will fall short of that goal, but a recent uptick in admissions has fueled renewed optimism in the program among refugee advocates.
The US had for years outpaced other countries in refugee admissions, allowing millions into the country since the Refugee Act of 1980. But the program took a hit under former President Donald Trump, who slashed the number of refugees allowed to come to the US, and during the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in a temporary suspension of resettlements.
In a statement marking World Refugee Day this year, Biden underscored his administration’s efforts to rebuild the admissions program and said the US planned to welcome 125,000 refugees next year.
“Welcoming refugees is part of who we are as Americans – our nation was founded by those fleeing religious persecution. When we take action to help refugees around the world, and include them, we honor this past and are stronger for it,” Biden said.
A new initiative by the Biden administration to partner with international organizations to establish brick-and-mortar processing centers, known as Safe Mobility Offices, will play a role in referring migrants with protection needs to the US Refugee Admissions Program.
The offices are in Colombia, Costa Rica and Guatemala. A web portal is already available for people to register and apply for programs before going to an office.
And, in a first, Mexico will process Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans who are already in Mexico and eligible for the so-called P2 designation, which applies to “groups of special concern designated by the Department of State as having access to the program by virtue of their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement.”
To increase the number of admissions from Latin America, the State Department cut allocations for Europe and Central Asia from 15,000 to between 2,000 and 3,000, according to the draft report. In fiscal year 2023, nearly 3,000 refugees from that region are expected to be resettled in the US. Ukrainians have the ability to apply for parole to come to the US, which is separate from the refugee program.
The refugee cap requires consultation with Congress before the end of the fiscal year, which ends Saturday. Senior administration officials are expected to meet with lawmakers this week.
The refugee admissions process is arduous and can take years to complete. As of August 31, the US admitted 51,231 refugees this year, according to the latest federal data. While far short of the 125,000 ceiling, admissions since last October are more than double all of fiscal year 2022.
Refugee advocates credit Biden administration efforts to address bottlenecks in the system, as well as a new program that allows groups of private citizens to sponsor refugees from around the world, for the uptick in admissions over recent months.
“This coming fiscal year feels like a transition from an aspirational target to a realistic expectation,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a refugee resettlement organization, previously told CNN.
There are more than 35 million refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations refugee agency.