Reversing the substantial damage done to the US refugee resettlement programme and the seemingly innumerable barriers to asylum access erected during Donald Trump’s four-year presidency was always going to be difficult. But after an initial flurry of activity by the Biden administration, progress has slowed – and in some cases gone backwards.
US President Joe Biden entered the White House vowing to take a “fair and humane” approach to immigration policy and “reassert America’s commitment to asylum seekers and refugees”. A year later, his record on the issues is deeply mixed, and his decision to continue – and even expand – some of Trump’s harshest policies has left many migration and human rights advocates disappointed.
“We are operating in an environment where what you can achieve is not unbound,” Eric Schwartz, president of the NGO Refugees International, told The New Humanitarian, referring to the limitations of reforming migration policies in a politically polarised United States. “On the other hand, there are many instances where I feel [the Biden administration] could have been bolder.”
Meanwhile, the situation in northern Mexico – where the consequences of US migration policies are often felt most strongly – remains dismal, with asylum seekers and migrants stranded in limbo and frequently targeted for robbery, kidnapping, extortion, sexual assault, and even murder, according to humanitarian and human rights groups.
“When it comes to the border, the Biden administration’s asylum policies have remained calamitous,” said Kennji Kizuka, associate director of the NGO Human Rights First. “If this is what humane looks like, I don’t want to know what inhumane is.”
But in an interview with Reuters, US secretary of homeland security Alejandro Mayorkas defended the Biden administration’s record. "In this first year, we have been dedicated to rebuilding an immigration system that was dismantled, virtually in its entirety, by the prior administration," Mayorkas said. "We have had to rescind cruel policies, bring offices back to life, issue new policies, and rebuild entire operations."
Here’s a closer look at Biden’s record, along with some suggestions from migration experts and advocates on what his administration can still do to follow through on its initial promises:
What is happening with refugee resettlement?
Shortly after taking office, Biden issued an executive order laying out a roadmap for rebuilding the US refugee resettlement programme. The Trump administration had starved the programme of funding and introduced “extreme vetting” requirements that effectively ground it to a halt. Biden’s executive order addressed those issues and focused on reducing bureaucratic hurdles and slow processing times that had hobbled the resettlement process for years.
“It was a really bold and positive executive order,” Lacy Broemel, a policy analyst at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a legal support and advocacy organisation, told The New Humanitarian.
However, after initially pledging to raise the refugee resettlement ceiling to 62,500 from the historic low of 15,000 set by the Trump administration for fiscal year 2021 (which runs October-September), Biden dragged his feet. Following a backlash from lawmakers and advocacy groups, he did eventually raise the cap, but only around 11,400 refugees were admitted in the 2021 fiscal year – the lowest number since the programme started in 1980.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the dismantling of the programme during the Trump years both contributed to the shortfall. But the Biden administration also hasn’t followed through on implementing the reforms laid out in the executive order, according to Broemel. “We can look back at the past year and say, ‘yes, there were some good promises made,’ but we need to see action,” she said.
For fiscal year 2022, Biden announced he would further raise the refugee resettlement ceiling to 125,000. Refugee advocates praised the move as sending a critical message to other countries about the importance of supporting forcibly displaced people. But in the first three months of the fiscal year, the US admitted just over 3,200 refugees – a far slower pace than is needed to come anywhere close to 125,000 admissions.
The pace has also been slowed because the programme’s limited resources and depleted network are being leaned on to assist more than 70,000 Afghans who entered the United States after they were evacuated when the Taliban took over Kabul in August.
Legally, the Afghans are being treated as asylum seekers rather than refugees – whose cases are processed while they are outside the United States. But it is the refugee resettlement programme’s personnel and NGO partners who are coordinating the effort to find housing and integrate the evacuees into communities across the country.
“At the same time that they are being asked to resettle 125,000 new refugees, they are being asked to effectively resettle tens of thousands of Afghans outside the context of the refugee admissions programme,” said Schwartz, who oversaw the programme as assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration during president Barack Obama’s administration.
Has asylum access at the US-Mexico border improved?
Similar to refugee resettlement, the Biden administration got off to a quick start reversing Trump-era asylum policies. On his first day in office, Biden announced he would end the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) – also known as “Remain in Mexico” – a Trump-era programme that sent tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait in often dangerous situations in northern Mexico during the duration of their asylum processes.
Several weeks later, Biden issued an executive order laying out a plan to address the causes of migration in North and Central America, and to set up a safe and orderly system to process asylum seekers at the US southern border. The plan involved lifting legal barriers put in place by the Trump administration, making it more difficult for victims of domestic and gang violence to receive protection. The rate of accepted asylum claims climbed from around 30 percent in the five months prior to the change to 49 percent in the five months after.
But in the spring, apprehensions of migrants and asylum seekers at the US southern border began to soar to historically high levels – although 27 percent were of people intercepted attempting to cross more than once. Political opponents seized on the issue to foment a sense of crisis and pinned the increase on the Biden administration’s efforts to reverse Trump policies. As the pressure grew, Biden began to change course.
In June, the administration had been working with humanitarian groups to begin unwinding Title 42 – a pandemic-related public health policy issued under Trump that permits US authorities to expel anyone who irregularly enters the country without letting them apply for asylum.
Although the policy has been denounced by experts as not making sense in terms of protecting public health, by the end of the summer the administration had decided to keep it. Even after the US ended all pandemic-related travel restrictions, the government has continued to renew it – and is even fighting in court to keep the policy in place.
Despite carving out some limited exceptions, more than 990,000 expulsions have been carried out under Title 42 since Biden took office – more than double the amount during the Trump administration. More than 14,000 of those expelled were Haitians sent back to Haiti after a large number crossed into southern Texas in September. Human Rights First has documented at least 8,705 instances of kidnapping, rape, torture, and other violent attacks perpetrated against people of all nationalities expelled to Mexico under Title 42 during the Biden administration.
Meanwhile, a court order forced Biden to reinstate Remain in Mexico at the beginning of December. More than 250 people have been placed in the programme since it restarted. The administration is still fighting to end the policy in court, but it has also expanded it to apply to five additional nationalities that weren’t included in the Trump version of the programme. “That’s certainly a surprise and a major disappointment,” said Kizuka, from Human Rights First.
Has anything changed for people waiting in northern Mexico?
The effects of the Biden administration’s border policies “haven’t departed in any significant way from Trump’s policies,” Hannah Hollandbyrd, a policy specialist with the Hope Border Initiative, a grassroots aid and advocacy organisation working in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, told The New Humanitarian. “The result is the same cruelty, the same incoherent, very messy, and broken system that we had before.”
Claudia Masferrer, a professor at the Center for Demographic, Urban, and Environment Studies at El Colegio de México in Mexico City, also flagged this failure to live up to initial expectations. “The executive orders that Biden published at the beginning of his administration pointed in the correct direction,” Masferrer said. “Many were expecting more significant change in the long term, and this has not quite happened yet.”
“You have lots of people who have been waiting in incredibly dangerous conditions.”
As a result, the humanitarian crisis caused by US policies that have stranded people in vulnerable situations in northern Mexico is still in full swing. Many people don’t have adequate access to housing or medical care, and the ability to isolate for protection from COVID-19 is nearly non-existent, according to Hollie Webb, a supervising attorney at Al Otro Lado, an organisation that provides legal and humanitarian support to asylum seekers and migrants in Tijuana, Mexico.
“You have lots of people who have been waiting in incredibly dangerous conditions,” Webb said. “They’re highly vulnerable. They’re very desperate. There are organised criminal groups. There are people who are trying to scam them for money. People are victims of kidnappings and attacks.”
What’s on the Year 2 wishlist?
To pick up on the progress Biden made early in his presidency, migration and asylum advocates say a good place for the administration to start would be to lay out a clear timeline for undoing Title 42 and for reversing the expansion of Remain in Mexico while continuing to try to end the policy through the courts. It should also stop legally defending other Trump-era migration and asylum policies.
On refugee resettlement, the roadmap to reform is already in place in the form of the executive order Biden issued last year. “We want to urge the administration to… follow through on those exact things that were in the executive order,” said Broemel from IRAP, which recently put forward a list of 22 recommendations to rebuild and improve the programme. “I do think that there needs to be a reinfusion and recommitment to making sure that those changes happen,” she added.
Overall, Masferrer said there needs to be a shift away from viewing migration as a problem or a crisis. The rhetoric on migration is less xenophobic and racist than it was under the Trump administration but the message is the same, she explained: “The message is, ‘we need to control our borders; we need to stop people from coming to the United States; we need to reduce and contain all these flows’ – without providing for long-term solutions or even providing a different type of narrative towards migration.”