When Joe Biden was elected president of the United States in November, Yasmin Aguilar’s 11-year-old niece – who began the US refugee resettlement process in Afghanistan when she was five – told her family: “Joe Biden will hopefully put me on the first plane. He’s a friend of [Barack] Obama, and Obama loves Muslims.”
The story was sobering for Aguilar to hear. “I didn’t know what American presidents thought of Muslims when I was her age,” she said. “My life wasn’t at risk.”
Aguilar, 50, came to the United States as a refugee from Afghanistan in 2000, but she has only been able to see her brother and sister and their families twice in the past two decades, on trips she took to Afghanistan after receiving her US citizenship.
Both her siblings’ families were on the cusp of being resettled to the United States as refugees when former president Donald Trump took office in 2017. Like thousands of other people around the world, their cases then became stalled. Both were told by Resettlement Support Center Asia – a Department of State-funded group run by NGOs, international organisations, and American embassy contractors – that resettlement would now take a lot longer as the Trump administration had reduced yearly admissions.
“I had bought them beds, dishes, plates back in 2017 when I thought they’d be arriving,” Aguilar told The New Humanitarian of her brother’s family – the first scheduled to arrive. “Every time I look at the stuff I bought them, I think, ‘Will we ever be able to see them?’”
Even before the Trump administration, the US refugee resettlement process was lengthy – it involved clearing complicated bureaucratic hurdles and waiting for years for slots to become available. But despite its limitations, prior to Trump, the US resettled more refugees each year than the rest of the world’s countries combined. Even if it amounted to a tiny fraction of the total number of people in need, the programme was a beacon of hope and a lifeline for refugees who were able to access it.
Once in office, Trump moved quickly to turn campaign rhetoric that painted refugees – especially Muslims – as security threats and potential terrorists into policy by slashing refugee admission numbers to historic lows, throwing up bureaucratic obstacles that hobbled the resettlement process, and shifting the programme’s priorities to favour white Christians from Eastern Europe over Muslim refugees from the Middle East and Africa.
On his first day in office last week, President Biden rescinded his predecessor’s “Muslim ban”, which in its final version blocked citizens from 12 countries – including six with predominantly Muslim populations – from entering the United States.
The move has raised hopes among refugees and advocates that Biden will follow through on other campaign promises, such as increasing the refugee resettlement ceiling to 125,000 per year, and working with Congress to establish a legal minimum admissions quota of 95,000 per year. The current refugee resettlement ceiling for fiscal year 2021, set by Trump, is 15,000 slots – the lowest it has ever been since the programme was established in 1980.
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But the end to separation for families, like Aguilar’s, kept apart by Trump’s policies isn’t going to come overnight.
Since winning the election last November, Biden – facing crises ranging from the coronavirus pandemic and its economic effects to climate change, racial inequality, and the rise of right-wing extremism – has asked for patience while he finds ways to undo much of his predecessor’s immigration legacy without causing fresh problems.
“For those of us who are advocates – who have people that we care about who have been hurt by these policies – it’s going to be difficult to be patient,” Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee and migrant division, told TNH. “But it is going to take time to repair the damage that has been done by the Trump administration — to right the ship that has been drawn off course.”
The Trump years
While Aguilar’s life wasn’t threatened as a child, the many-chaptered conflict that has roiled Afghanistan for decades caught up with her as a young woman. In the mid-1990s, when she was 26, Aguilar was kidnapped by a militant group. After being released, she made her escape to the United States, but her parents and siblings stayed behind.
In the years since, Aguilar has been able to build a happy, stable existence for herself. She works as an immigration and refugee specialist with the Agency for New Americans, a refugee resettlement and support organisation in Boise, Idaho, where she lives.
After years spent figuring out how to navigate the US immigration system and waiting for bureaucratic processes to play out, Aguilar – as an American citizen – was able to sponsor her parents to become permanent US residents and bring them to Boise in 2017. Such processes are separate from the refugee resettlement programme and weren’t affected as severely by Trump’s policies.
But without her siblings and their families, life for Aguilar and her parents feels incomplete.
Throughout Trump’s four years in office, Aguilar’s brother’s family has been redoing the health checkups required for refugees to enter the United States every six months to keep them up to date in case they are assigned one of the vanishingly small number of resettlement spots that currently exist.
While the family’s hopes have been dampened by the Trump years, Aguilar’s brother is still in a better position than refugees who have yet to make it into the resettlement pipeline. “There is virtually no way for a newly identified refugee to make it into the programme,” Devon Cone, a senior advocate at Refugees International, told TNH. “There are hundreds of thousands of people eligible for those 15,000 places.”
Even if Biden increases the resettlement ceiling to 125,000, it will take years for the backlogs that have piled up during the Trump years to be cleared out, Cone added.
Aguilar told TNH she has felt the effects of the Trump administration’s anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies in other ways too. “Over the last four years, things have happened that I’d never seen in my life,” she said, noting how often she is now being told to speak English or go home. “In all those years from 2000 to 2016… no one did this to me.”
The dramatic scaling back of the refugee resettlement programme has also resulted in resettlement organisations – which receive money from the government based on how many people they help resettle – having their funding cut and closing hundreds of offices across the United States. As a result, the support and integration services they provide to refugees already in the country, and the few who have continued to arrive, have suffered.
Peace Izabayo, a 28-year-old Rwandan refugee, was resettled in 2008 and now works part-time with PAIR, an NGO that provides mentoring and educational support to young refugees in Houston, Texas.
She told TNH she had seen firsthand how the level of assistance has declined over the past decade because of funding cuts. “When we arrived, a lady picked us up, gave us a nice new apartment with a new mattress, new sheets,” she recalled, explaining that refugees now often don’t receive the same level of support even though volunteers have stepped in to plug some of the gaps. “It has changed so much since I was resettled,” Izabayo added.
More moves needed
While Biden’s promises and early action have raised hopes, experts interviewed by TNH say that rescinding the Muslim ban and increasing the resettlement ceiling will not be enough to undo the damage caused by the Trump administration.
In addition, refugee advocacy organisations say Biden should eliminate unnecessary administrative hoops refugees have to jump through by: reducing the amount of paperwork involved in the resettlement process; lowering financial barriers; limiting the instances in which DNA testing is required; clarifying that refugees do not require passports for admission; and getting rid of time limits to submit documents, such as health checks.
To help the refugees most in need, the new administration will also have to redefine the resettlement programme’s priority categories so they are based on vulnerability instead of favouring people from Eastern Europe and Christians.
Also key, refugee rights advocates say, will be: channelling funding to rebuild capacity in the US Citizenship and Immigration Services directorate that manages refugee resettlement; re-establishing a close working relationship with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, which was sidelined during the Trump administration; and reinvesting in overseas infrastructure for resettlement organisations, many of which shut down or saw significant reductions in staff due to lack of funding under Trump.
Biden has the ability to make many of these changes without having to receive Congressional approval. “Through executive action, agency coordination, diplomacy, and legislative engagement, the White House can restore US leadership in response to the global refugee crisis,” Danielle Grigsby, director of policy and practice at Refugee Council USA, an umbrella organisation for US resettlement agencies, told TNH.
Experts also say that simply rebuilding the resettlement programme as it existed under the Obama administration should not be the goal. In fiscal year 2016, the final year Obama set the ceiling, the US resettled nearly 85,000 refugees, but the system was already hampered by bureaucratic hurdles that made the process drag on for years and left people in the pipeline stuck in refugee camps for years. Trump’s policies only made the situation worse.
For people like Aguilar and her family, being forced to keep waiting carries very real consequences. Aguilar’s mother has cancer and wants to see her children in the same place before it is too late. Aguilar’s family hasn’t been all together since she visited them in Afghanistan in late 2016, before her parents came to the United States and Trump took office.
“My parents cry every day, asking, ‘when will I see my kids again?’” Aguilar said. “My mom keeps saying, ‘Hopefully Biden will let your brother come.’”