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What’s at stake in the US election for refugees and asylum?

‘This current administration has had a single-minded focus, from the White House on down, to carry out the anti-immigrant, anti-asylum, anti-refugee agenda.’

US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, participate in the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio, on 29 September 2020. Olivier Douliery/REUTERS
US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, participate in the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio, on 29 September 2020.

In less than four years in office, the administration of President Donald Trump has largely dismantled the US asylum system and refugee resettlement programme. If elected on 3 November, Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic challenger, has said he will take a starkly different approach, vowing to “reassert America’s commitment to asylum seekers and refugees”.

A significant departure from the Trump era, Biden’s proposals represent a return to the traditional US political consensus that the country should offer humanitarian protections to people fleeing persecution, according to policy experts. If Biden wins the election and takes office in January, however, rebuilding the asylum system and refugee resettlement programme will require significant attention and will likely be more politically complicated than advocates might hope. 

“It is going to take a lot of work to even get things to where they were on January 19, 2017 (the day before Trump took office),” Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a legal support and advocacy organisation, told The New Humanitarian. “That itself is going to take a lot of time and effort, and it’s not going to be as easy as just rescinding a few things and it will happen.”

What’s the refugee resettlement situation?

Prior to Trump’s presidency, the United States resettled more refugees every year than the rest of the world combined. On 1 October, Trump announced a historically low ceiling of 15,000 refugee admissions for fiscal year 2021 – which began this month – far below the 95,000 yearly average since the US refugee resettlement programme was established in 1980. 

Last year, the ceiling was set at 18,000, but only 11,814 were admitted due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic and security vetting procedures previously put in place by the administration that have slowed resettlement. There are currently about 120,000 people waiting in the US refugee resettlement pipeline. 

“The sad thing, it’s no longer shocking,” Hans Van de Weerd, vice president of resettlement, asylum, and integration at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a global humanitarian aid organisation, told TNH. “One would expect this administration to go even below the low barriers that it had already set.”

What about the US-Mexico border?

Since March, Trump has also used the pandemic to justify expelling more than 147,000 people who have irregularly entered the United States from Mexico without granting them access to asylum. The move follows a host of other policies that had already nearly choked off access to asylum at the US southern border and created a humanitarian crisis in northern Mexico by leaving tens of thousands of people seeking protection in limbo.

Chief among these policies are: “metering” at US ports of entry, which imposes limits on the number of people who can apply for asylum on a given day; the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or “Remain in Mexico”, which allows the United States to send asylum seekers back to Mexico for the duration of their asylum processes; and a transit-country asylum ban, which excludes anyone from protection in the United States who passes through another country en route to the US-Mexico border without applying for asylum and being rejected there first.

Watch → Risk and no reward: Transgender asylum seekers wait out COVID-19 in Mexico’s dangerous border cities

“The administration is continuing on the road to a complete annihilation of the refugee and asylum protections in this country,” Van de Weerd said. 

What else has Trump done?

In 2016, Trump placed hostility towards immigrants – including people needing humanitarian protection – at the centre of his campaign for the presidency, and since coming to office his administration has consistently characterised refugees and asylum seekers as “a burden on the country’s economy, public safety, and social welfare system”, according to a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a non-partisan, Washington, D.C.-based think tank. 

Trump’s approach has been a “dramatic departure” from the norm during the past four decades in the United States, said Ruth Wasem, a professor of public policy at the University of Texas. “It’s not that some of the things Trump has done are brand new ideas,” Wasem explained, referencing barriers to protection that have periodically been put in place for specific nationalities in the past. “We have done those things before, but now it’s general policy,” she said.

“The administration is continuing on the road to a complete annihilation of the refugee and asylum protections in this country.”

Under the Trump administration, programmes like the MPP and metering, along with less visible policy tweaks – like changing the language in asylum officers’ handbooks – have had the combined effect of blocking access to protection across the board. “There have been just dozens of changes to the asylum system that make it more difficult for people to get asylum,” Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst at MPI, told TNH.

The Trump administration has also conflated asylum and refugee policy – traditionally seen as separate – by using the number of people seeking asylum in the United States to justify reducing refugee admissions, according to Bolter, and the administration has changed the demographics of the limited number of refugees still entering the country by shifting priorities to exclude Muslims and increase the proportion of Christians. 

“The Trump administration has dedicated probably an unprecedented amount of time and resources to making these changes,” Bolter said. “These have been the priorities of this administration.”

What is Biden promising?

In contrast, Biden has said he will raise the refugee resettlement ceiling to 125,000 during his first year in office and end a number of the Trump administration’s asylum policies – including MPP, the third-country asylum ban, the prosecution of adult asylum seekers for irregularly entering the country, and legal changes that have excluded victims of gang and domestic violence from qualifying for asylum.

Biden’s proposals also include allocating more resources to ensure asylum claims are processed fairly and efficiently, supporting humanitarian organisations working with asylum seekers along the southern border, increasing the number of immigration judges to address a longstanding backlog of cases in immigration courts, and working with Congress to establish minimum refugee admissions of 95,000 per year. 

What would this mean on the ground?

In practical terms, according to policy experts, those changes would mean tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers would be taken out of harmful situations and given safety from persecution.

They would also mean that refugees and asylum seekers would be able to reunite with family members already in the United States, put their kids back in school, and start putting pieces of their lives back together – although the number of people to benefit would still represent only a small percentage those in need of protection around the world. 

What are the challenges for refugee reform?

Despite the stated intention of his campaign, even if Biden wins, the Trump administration’s policies won’t be so easy to roll back.

On the refugee side, the nine resettlement agencies the government contracts to place refugees in communities have had to close offices and lay off staff as numbers and funding have dried up. “The number of resettlement offices network-wide that have been closed runs into the hundreds,” said Van de Weerd, from IRC, one of the resettlement agencies. “We’ve lost, really, a lot of valuable skills.”

Despite the challenge, if the admissions ceiling is increased Van de Weerd said resettlement agencies would be able to scale up over time. “It may be improvising a bit in the first year, but I think then we will be able to rebuild this, with the right level of resources,” he said.

More complicated will be undoing the changes to regulations and case law that have restricted who is eligible for refugee resettlement, allocating staff and resources, and figuring out how to speed up the complicated security vetting procedures the Trump administration has put in place. “All of that process will definitely need to happen faster just to get to 125,000,” said Varghese, from IRAP.

And what about on asylum?

On the asylum side, a large share of the changes have been made through executive action, which means a Biden administration would be able to undo many of them unilaterally. Even so, regulations can’t be changed overnight. The process of writing new ones and getting them approved takes months, according to Bolter. 

If high-profile programmes, such as MPP and metering, are ended, there is concern about whether the political will to undo the numerous smaller, more technical changes, would dry up. “That’s kind of the genius of what the Trump administration has done here,” Bolter said. “They’ve created a really effective web of major and minor policies that have completely changed the asylum system and made it really hard to sustain advocacy on all of them.”

Will such issues be a priority for Biden?

There’s also concern among policy experts that, despite his strong rhetorical support, a Biden administration won’t want to expend too much political capital on changes to asylum and refugee policy that could potentially provoke political backlash. If asylum protections are reinstated and there’s a surge of people heading toward the US southern border or if the Republican party seizes on revised refugee vetting procedures to present a Biden administration as weak on security, that could cause a political crisis for a new administration, experts said. 

Biden would likely also have a number of other priorities – from the pandemic, to healthcare and the economy – competing for his attention on day one. “This current administration has had a single-minded focus, from the White House on down, to carry out the anti-immigrant, anti-asylum, anti-refugee agenda,” Varghese said. “In that same way, to fix it, a new administration would have to have that sort of message and focus from the White House on down… [to] rebuild and remake the system.”

What can advocates realistically hope for?

“The reality is that no one person put in office in this moment is going to be the saviour for asylum seekers,” Tracey Horan, associate director of education and advocacy at the Kino Border Initiative, a cross-border humanitarian aid group working with migrants and asylum seekers in southern Arizona and northern Mexico, told TNH.

But the dismantling of the asylum system and refugee resettlement programme has provoked a groundswell of civil society organising in opposition to the Trump administration’s agenda. 

“Civil society has taken a really strong role in coming together and organising against these policies, and it will definitely take strong and consistent advocacy to make sure this does rise to the top of a Biden administration’s priorities,” Bolter said. 

“We’re not naive,” Horan continued. “Folks who have been in immigrant rights’ circles for a long time have seen these promises come and go.” If, with enough public pressure, a Biden administration did follow through on the promises the campaign has made, it would be “a hopeful change”, she added. 

And what if Trump should win a second term on 3 November?

“To see four more years of an administration that has done everything in their power to take away the rights of asylum seekers would be devastating,” Horan said. “We would have a lot of work in front of us to continue to resist these policies.”


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