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New Hope for Refugees Under the Biden Administration—But Will It Last?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan
December 5, 2020

If you take a look at the number of refugees admitted to the United States over the past 10-to-15 years, the differences over time are striking. In 2015, near the end of the Obama presidency, the United States resettled approximately 82.5 million refugees into the country. In 2017, near the beginning of the Trump administration, that number rapidly dropped to about 26.5 million. Later, in 2019, the number dropped even further to a little over 21 million. In fiscal year 2020-2021 the number was even lower at 15 million—the lowest since the United States first passed its Refugee Act of 1980.

The incoming Biden administration seems likely to make another change and to revert refugee admissions to numbers closer to what was seen under the Obama administration. Biden’s platform, stating that, “The Statue of Liberty has long been a beacon to people, ‘Yearning to breathe free,’ around the world—including asylum-seekers and refugees,” discusses reversing the immigration, refugee and asylum policies created under the Trump administration. The platform lays out a plan to increase the refugee admissions cap in the United States to 125,000, with ongoing plans to continue raising the number over time. According to the platform, the United States has a responsibility to refugees and to the world to maintain a strong refugee resettlement program.

While this increase is certainly welcomed by refugees and those working with and advocating for them, the sense of welcome is not universal. Arguments against accepting refugees into the United States are long-standing and ongoing. Those against refugee resettlement primarily argue that refugees can be an economic drain on society, that resources spent on refugees would be better spent on those already here and that refugees could pose a safety threat to the United States.

Thus, those setting refugee resettlement policies face an age-old challenge. Refugee resettlement, like many other public policy issues, creates two sides that are staunchly opposed with seemingly little room for compromise. However, the current pattern of drastically increasing or decreasing the refugee admissions cap based on the presidential administration seems inefficient, confusing and frustrating. While Biden’s proposal may help refugees while he is in office, a lack of agreement on all sides leaves room for another policy shift once he is no longer president. Rather than rapid changes with each incoming administration, we need something steadier and more long-term. But how can we reach that? Can we find a lasting middle ground that will be satisfactory to all involved?

To come to an agreement, we can first explore the benefits of refugee resettlement to the receiving country. If these benefits can be clearly demonstrated, perhaps some minds will begin to change and resettlement will become more accepted over time. Because many of the arguments against resettlement are from economic and safety standpoints, we can make economic and safety-based arguments to refute them. For example, according to a 2018 report from Brookings, resettled refugees:

  • Provide a new labor pool for the receiving country.
  • Bring new and different skills to the workforce (that do not typically come into direct competition with those already living in the receiving country).
  • Engage in higher rates of entrepreneurship at a significantly higher rather than those native to the receiving country.
  • Have been shown to help foster international trade and investment for their receiving country.

The above points are especially true when refugees are provided with sufficient support to integrate successfully into their new society. In fact, an argument can even be made that providing more support rather than less support to refugees will bring about more positive outcomes in the long term. In addition, from a safety standpoint, research estimates that the annual risk of an American being killed by a refugee terrorist on United States soil is 1 in 3.6 billion—rather low odds. Refugees also undergo a thorough, multi-year background check process before being approved for resettlement, thus further reducing risk.

Overall, refugee resettlement brings very little risk and a positive economic outcome for the receiving country. Once benefits are understood, the challenge for policymakers then becomes how to communicate these benefits, and how to get buy-in from the opposition. Policymakers must also contend with the fact that, at least in some cases, anti-refugee sentiment is due to racism and othering. In those cases, presenting facts and data is not likely to change minds. Time will tell if the increased refugee caps under the Biden administration will bring about lasting change, or if will we see another decrease in refugee admissions with the next president. Ideally, we’ll be able to find an ongoing solution that benefits refugees as well as those living in a receiving country. Though the acceptance of resettled refugees, and subsequent integration support, does benefit all involved, the challenge of demonstrating those benefits and gaining widespread support for refugee resettlement continues.

Author: Brittany Keegan, Ph.D. is the director of research and outreach at the VCU Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy. Her research focuses on nonprofit organizations, refugee/immigration policy, and gender-based violence prevention and intervention. Twitter: @BritKeegan

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