President Joe Biden speaks to State Department officials on his first visit to Washington, DC on February 4, 2021.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
President Joe Biden announced Thursday that he plans to increase the cap on the number of refugees allowed to enter the United States as he inherits a resettlement program that was cut off by former President Donald Trump.
"Today I am approving an executive order to begin the hard work of restoring our refugee reception program to meet unprecedented global needs," said Biden. "It will take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged."
When Trump took office in 2017, the refugee limit set by President Barack Obama for the fiscal year was 110,000. Trump left office after setting a cap of just 15,000 for the current fiscal year – the lowest level since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980.
Biden pledged to raise the annual ceiling for refugees to 125,000 in the twelve months beginning October 1. The President must consult Congress before setting the annual limit.
"We hope this is a signal that the US will take a leadership role in relocating people who need it," said Yael Schacher, senior US attorney for the independent advocacy group, Refugees International. "This is a really important reset for the US."
The president also said he would issue a policy to agencies to promote LGBTQIA rights internationally, including the protection of LGBTQIA refugees and asylum seekers.
Biden's announcement comes after he signed the executive order on Tuesday to set up a task force to reunite migrant children with their families, address the root causes of migration from Central America and review the legal immigration system.
The decline in the number of refugee arrivals during Trump's presidency has gutted the country's resettlement infrastructure as agencies close offices and lay off staff. According to an October report by the Penn Biden Center, around a third of local relocation offices across the country closed or ceased operations as of April 2019.
"The resettlement program has had a devastating success," said Danielle Grigsby, director of policy and practice for Refugee Council USA. "The government's swift action to increase refugee reception will facilitate the renewal of this life-saving and community-building program."
President Barack Obama set the refugee cap at 85,000 in fiscal 2016, his last full fiscal year in office. The Foreign Ministry reported 84,994 refugee arrivals during this period, the highest number since 1999.
In the following fiscal year that Trump took office, the State Department reported only 53,716 arrivals.
The US has been the world leader in refugee resettlement since 1980 until Canada topped the list in 2018 and 2019, according to the latest United Nations reports.
By the end of December 2020, fewer than 1,000 refugees had been processed below Trump's 15,000 limit, according to data from the State Department.