Biden's refugee plan is what America needs to heal from Trump

Biden's pledge to raise the annual ceiling for refugees is a perfect place to start undoing some of Trump's damage.
Image: A framed photograph of a home with an American flag is juxtaposed over an image of migrants walking that has a green overlay.
Biden's pledge to raise the refugee cap to 125,000 goes a long way toward restoring America after the Trump era.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden's promise to reopen the U.S. to the world's tired, poor, huddled masses is something of a perfect intersection of his coming presidency and the past four years of President Donald Trump's.

Nine weeks before the clock starts on his term, Biden has a lot of major decisions and largely thankless work ahead of him.

Nine weeks before the clock starts on his term, Biden has a lot of major decisions and largely thankless work ahead of him. Much of the early months in office will be dedicated not necessarily to his own vision but to trying to reverse Trump's most damaging policies. Massively increasing the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. has the benefit, then, of doing exactly that — marking an end to the U.S. government's hostility to immigrants under Trump and showing the world our renewed place in the global community. It also happens to be the right thing to do and entirely fitting with Biden's beliefs.

"The United States has long stood as a beacon of hope for the downtrodden and the oppressed, a leader of resettling refugees in our humanitarian response," he said in remarks recorded for the Jesuit Refugee Service's 40th anniversary.

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"I promise, as president, I will reclaim that proud legacy for our country," he continued. "The Biden-Harris administration will restore America's historic role in protecting the vulnerable and defending the rights of refugees everywhere and raising our annual refugee admission target to 125,000."

It's a rate that Biden ran on, contrasting himself with the president, who tried to turn the increase into one of his most blatantly racist attack lines during the 2020 campaign.

"They pledged a 700 percent increase in refugees! 700 percent! Congratulations, Minnesota! Congratulations!" Trump said at a rally in Duluth on Sept. 30. "Sleepy Joe will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp!" he'd said earlier that month in Bemidji.

120,000 refugees who have already been vetted and cleared for possible resettlement are languishing.

Warning his almost entirely white audience in a state whose largest city, Minneapolis, has the most concentrated Somali American population in the United States is less of a dog whistle than an air horn. But unlike most of his bile, the 700 percent increase is accurate. Not because Biden would be setting the refugee resettlement cap at its highest in recent history — that would be the ceiling of 232,000 refugees set in 1980, in part thanks to Soviet Jews and Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees arriving in large numbers, prompting the formalization of the U.S. refugee program.

No, the sharp spike will be in response to a desperately needed correction. Under the watchful gaze of Stephen Miller, the primary architect of Trump's anti-immigration policies, the cap has been slashed and suffocated until it hit its current all-time low. Only 15,000 refugees are permitted to enter the U.S. in fiscal year 2021. That in itself is a reduction of 3,000 from the already historically low ceiling from the previous year. Only 11,000 actually were resettled, thanks, in part, to a moratorium set into place because of the coronavirus pandemic.

And where Trump's or Miller's direct orders weren't a factor, officials at the Department of Homeland Security took the initiative to reduce the number of immigrants on their own. Unlike refugee status, which is applied for overseas, asylum has to be requested once you are in the U.S. Asylum-seekers at the southern border were told in 2018 that instead of using unofficial border crossings and claiming asylum when on U.S. soil, they should enter legally at ports of entry. But a report last month from the department's inspector general confirmed that when she was secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen approved a plan that would turn away hundreds of potential asylum-seekers daily, refusing to process even people who were already in the U.S., as the law requires.

The formal line to enter the U.S. has grown by leaps and bounds in the last four years — 120,000 refugees who have already been vetted and cleared for possible resettlement are languishing. The number of people who haven't had the opportunity to even join the queue is longer. But while Biden has tools at his disposal to overturn some of Trump's restrictions in the opening days of his term, others will be harder to eliminate.

Part of the transformation the U.S. needs to recover from the Trump era requires a renewed commitment to making amends for a history of American exclusion and embracing the country's immigrant heritage more fully than ever.

As attorney general, Jeff Sessions issued a memo in 2018 that declared that "personal crimes," like domestic abuse and the threat of gang violence, didn't qualify migrants for asylum protections. The Trump administration has been working to galvanize that rule as a new regulation, which is even now making its way through the rule-making process. It could be finalized before January, forcing the Biden administration to go through the monthslong process to rescind it.

Biden would also have to contend with how to fairly shrink the refugee backlog — which is just one of the ways that Trump has hampered legal immigration — during a pandemic. Most of the changes he could seek would require a boost in funding to offices that have been choked of funds for resettlement, working with a Congress that may still have a Republican-controlled Senate. That reality has dampened hopes for a legislative overhaul of the country's immigration laws.

And some of Trump's policies are intricately linked, especially those funneling admissions from Central and South America. "Detangling everything Trump did at the southern border may be Biden's biggest headache on immigration," Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, told USA Today.

The Refugee Act of 1980 was built on top of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which finally tore down the racist quota laws that the U.S. used for decades to restrict immigration from browner parts of the world in Asia and Africa, as well as Southern and Eastern Europeans.

The years through 2016 have shown that the maximum numbers of refugees welcomed into the country wax and wane as attitudes in the U.S. shifted. But part of the transformation the U.S. needs to recover from the Trump era requires a renewed commitment to making amends for a history of American exclusion and embracing the country's immigrant heritage more fully than ever. The time to make those changes is now, no matter how hard they may seem.

Now is the time to offer hope to the 67,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers whom Trump has forced under his "Remain in Mexico" policy to wait on the Mexican side of the border while their cases are being completed in the U.S. It's time for the 25,000 of them living in squalor in shantytowns, fending for themselves, to know that they haven't clung to the belief in a better life for themselves or their children in vain.

It's the time to uphold our commitment to the Iraqis who have risked their lives to fight American wars. The U.S. provides identifying information to the Iraqi authorities for hundreds of Iraqis who have acted as translators and in other roles in coordination with the U.S. The Washington Post reported Thursday that many of them fear that their information is in the hands of Iranian-backed militias, putting their lives in heightened danger.

A carve-out in Trump's refugee ceiling allows for 4,000 Iraqis who have worked with the U.S. to be resettled per year. Even so, the International Refugee Assistance Project told The Post, only 161 were resettled in the last fiscal year. The backlog includes over 100,000 Iraqi applicants, the group added.

It's time for the Rohingya to find a safe haven after their forced removal from their homes. The mostly Muslim ethnic group has been the subject of a coordinated expulsion campaign by Myanmar. Hundreds of thousands fled the Myanmar army's systemic burning of their villages and mass murder. Over 850,000 refugees are still packed into refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Even in the face of ongoing ethnic cleansing, the Trump administration has limited the number of Rohingya it has admitted, leaving dozens of children wondering when — or whether — their parents would be able to join them.

Presidential transitions are a time of imagining, even more than presidential campaigns. With the whirlwind of the hustings having finally ended, the new administration is a void, a cipher, open to be defined however a viewer wants to see it. Even with Trump's refusal to concede, the space between the end of his administration and the beginning of Biden's is being filled with a rush of projections and plans and fears.

America used to be a place — the place — where oppressed people wanted to make the costly, often perilous journey to build new homes and lives. They were ground down by tyrannical governments, religious persecution, capitalist pillaging of their resources and all other manner of ills, and the U.S. offered a reprieve. That has been tarnished beyond the point of recognition. Their imagined America is one that seeps into the gaps of this transition period, offering a guideline for what we can become. As the Biden administration does the work of building this country into a place where the laws equally apply to everyone, where health care is a given, where we halt the warming of the planet, we need to make space for the people who've dreamed of a place where all that and more is possible.