The Biden-Harris Administration Must Restore U.S. Leadership on Refugee Protection

By: Giulia McPherson

December 4, 2020

Responding to: Rethinking Religion and U.S. Refugee Resettlement

The Biden-Harris Administration Must Restore U.S. Leadership on Refugee Protection

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 79.5 million people are displaced from their homes due to “persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, or events seriously disturbing public order.” The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated challenges facing displaced persons as they struggle with the impact of closed borders, shuttered schools, and the loss of livelihoods, among other things.

The incoming Biden-Harris administration has an extraordinary opportunity to restore U.S. leadership on refugee protection by taking action on a number of fronts, including restoring access to asylum and building back the refugee admissions program, both essential protection mechanisms for the world’s most vulnerable. 

In recent years, the United States has engaged in a series of efforts to limit long-held asylum protections, including the Migrant Protection Protocols, family separation at the border, and the closure of borders to asylum seekers in response to COVID-19. The United States must put forth policies that ensure individuals maintain the right to seek protection within our borders. These policies should not force people to return to deadly or dangerous conditions or to be handed over to persons who seek to exploit them. 

The United States must put forth policies that ensure individuals maintain the right to seek protection within our borders.

President-elect Biden asserted in his campaign platform that he will “restore our asylum laws so that they do what they should be designed to do—protect people fleeing persecution and who cannot return home safely.” The Biden-Harris administration must take definitive action that reinstates legal structures that protect asylum seekers from harm and gives them the due process they deserve. 

In addition to offering protection to those who arrive at our borders, the United States has long supported refugee resettlement as a durable solution for refugees residing in host communities. Since passage of the Refugee Act in 1980, the United States has admitted more than 3 million refugees through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, offering safe haven to refugees arriving from overseas.

Today, UNHCR estimates that over 1.4 million refugees currently residing in 62 host countries are in need of resettlement. Many have legal and physical protection needs, are survivors of violence or torture, or are women and children at risk. Recently, UNHCR noted that 2020 will be a record low for refugee resettlement due to challenges posed by COVID-19, which delayed departures and paused resettlement programs.

Yet, while the United States has historically set an average annual goal of 95,000 refugees to be admitted through the Refugee Admissions Program, this figure has decreased by more than 80% in recent years, to an all-time low of 15,000 refugees in FY2021

Refugees contribute greatly to the United States in ordinary times and have continued to support their new communities during the COVID-19 crisis, with many working on the frontlines of the pandemic. More than 176,000 refugees are health care workers treating COVID-19 patients, and over 175,000 are part of the U.S. food supply chain. As entrepreneurs, they have also founded both small and large businesses that employ and serve Americans throughout the country. 

Refugees contribute greatly to the United States in ordinary times and have continued to support their new communities during the COVID-19 crisis.

On November 12, in honor of the fortieth anniversary of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), President-elect Biden delivered a message during which he announced his intention to raise the global refugee admissions goal to at least 125,000 annually: “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.”

This past World Refugee Day, then-candidate Biden also stated that he would “repeal the Muslim ban—and other discriminatory bans based on ethnicity and nationality.” Originally announced in January 2017, the Muslim ban and subsequent iterations have blocked the entrance of immigrant and non-immigrant visitors from Muslim-majority countries, including refugees approved for resettlement.

By enacting these policies early on, the Biden-Harris administration could make significant strides in boldly restoring and strengthening the United States’ longstanding global leadership on refugee protection. Not only will individual lives be impacted and families reunited, but these actions will embody core elements of Catholic social teaching, to welcome the stranger and offer protection to those seeking safety.

These actions will embody core elements of Catholic social teaching, to welcome the stranger and offer protection to those seeking safety.

In his message to JRS supporters, President-elect Biden stated that “every society is ultimately judged by how we treat those most in need.” He went on to say that we are a “safer, stronger, and a better country” because of the contributions made by refugees and those who have sought asylum within our borders. 

President-elect Biden’s own faith may help inform how he determines his administration’s policy priorities, but religious communities and faith-inspired organizations like JRS will continue to serve as a resource to policymakers as we work towards improving the lives of refugees around the world and here at home.

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