Former U.S. President Donald Trump presided over the most restrictive immigration and asylum regime in modern American history. In just four years, his administration all but paralyzed the asylum system and drastically cut back the number of refugees it welcomed from abroad. In 2020, the United States granted asylum to roughly half the percentage of applicants than it did at the end of President Barack Obama’s administration. It also resettled fewer than 12,000 refugees in 2020—an 85 percent reduction from Obama’s last year in office.
President Joe Biden has begun to roll back some of Trump’s restrictive policies and promised to reverse many more. Immigrant and refugee advocates, business leaders, and others have high hopes that the Biden administration will not just dismantle Trump’s damaging legacy on immigration but advance sweeping reforms to modernize the southern border.
But undoing the harm of the last four years will not be as easy as signing a flurry of executive orders. The Trump administration all but dismantled the United States’ asylum and refugee resettlement systems. Building them back will be a herculean undertaking—all the more so in the midst of a pandemic and the attendant economic crisis that have left many Americans feeling much less generous toward new arrivals.
Those fleeing violence or persecution can seek refuge in the United States by two broad avenues. They can make their way to U.S. soil and claim asylum, or they can register as refugees with the United Nations and hope to be resettled through a federal program that has brought 3.1 million refugees to the United States since 1980. The Trump administration did virtually everything within its power to shut down both avenues, making it much more difficult to claim asylum and radically reducing the number of refugees admitted each year.
Trump’s hostility toward asylum is partly an outgrowth of his obsession with border security. In his 2016 campaign, Trump promised to seal off the southern border. Once in office, however, he struggled to control the influx from Central America and Mexico. Many of the new arrivals weren’t economic migrants attempting to evade detection. They were asylum seekers—often children traveling alone or with their families—who actively sought out U.S. Border Patrol agents to request sanctuary. As a result, they could not be deterred by beefed-up security.
Once in the United States, these migrants entered a deeply flawed asylum system. Often, they had to wait for years for heavily backlogged immigration courts to hear their cases; those with valid claims were left in extended limbo while those with less-than-legitimate claims used the delay as temporary permission to remain in the country. Slow and overburdened, this system provided neither safety for legitimate asylum seekers nor security at the U.S. border.
But rather than reform a flawed system, the Trump administration fixated on what it saw as fraud and misuse by individual asylum seekers, condemning the “catch and release” policies that allowed asylum seekers to stay and work in the United States while waiting for their claims to be heard. The numbers of arriving families and children rose sharply in 2018, prompting the Trump administration to implement a series of increasingly punitive policies, including intentionally separating families at the border in an effort to deter people from seeking asylum.
The Trump administration instituted the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their applications were adjudicated in the United States. It also struck agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that allowed the United States to send asylum seekers to those countries to file their applications, denying them the opportunity to apply for U.S. protections. The administration supplemented these restrictive measures with legal reforms that narrowed the grounds for asylum—by declaring domestic violence to be generally insufficient for a valid claim, for instance—and made the application process more onerous.
By 2019, the administration’s interlocking policies had severely hobbled the U.S. asylum system at the border. As a result, the number of asylum claims fell by half between May and September 2019—from 10,210 credible fear claims to 4,782. Over that same time period, the number of apprehensions at the border also plummeted, from 130,000 to just 22,000.
The coronavirus pandemic supercharged the administration’s efforts at the southern border. In March 2020, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order allowing the expulsion of all foreign nationals who had not been granted authorization to enter the United States. Tens of thousands of potential asylum seekers were subsequently deported back to Mexico or to the countries they had initially fled, and asylum claims at the border fell from an average of 4,600 per month to just a few hundred. Whereas Remain in Mexico and other restrictive policies had gradually strangled the asylum system, the CDC’s order effectively choked it off entirely.
At the same time as it crippled the asylum system at the border, the Trump administration reduced refugee resettlement from abroad to a trickle. The U.S. resettlement program used to be the largest in the world, admitting more than half of all refugees resettled globally each year. But within months of taking office, the Trump administration slashed the cap on refugee admissions from 110,000 to 50,000, temporarily paused resettlement, and implemented new security hurdles that slowed the process of bringing refugees into the country.
Trump lowered the cap on refugee admissions again in 2018 and in every subsequent year of his presidency. Last year, he set the limit for the 2021 fiscal year at 15,000—the lowest ever set by a president under the current system. As a result, the resettlement program withered. At least 51 local resettlement agencies shuttered their offices (and 41 more halted services) in response to declining numbers. The Trump administration also temporarily reassigned staff at the agencies responsible for vetting refugees for resettlement to work on asylum cases, slowing refugee processing and adding to rapidly mounting backlogs in the system. These procedural roadblocks greatly impeded the agencies’ ability to move refugees through the resettlement process and, ultimately, into the United States. Refugee admissions from Muslim countries especially suffered, falling by almost 90 percent between 2016 and 2019.
On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to reverse many of Trump’s asylum policies within his first 100 days as president. And on his first day in office, his administration ceased enrolling new asylum applicants through the Remain in Mexico policy. But aside from mandating a review of the policy, Biden’s team has been silent on the fate of the up to 25,000 asylum seekers who are currently enrolled in the Remain in Mexico program and waiting at Mexico’s northern border. And the CDC’s order mandating the expulsion of most unauthorized immigrants, including asylum seekers, remains in place.
The White House appears to be slowing its rollout of planned reforms, fearful that a sudden change in U.S. policy could catalyze a major influx of migrants across the border. Even before the inauguration, members of Biden’s team appeared to be tempering expectations. Susan Rice, the new director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told the Spanish news service EFE that the administration will resume asylum processing at the border when it has “the capacity to do so safely and to protect public health.” With the pandemic still raging and migrant caravans organizing south of the border, the administration is being careful not to move too quickly.
But Biden must contend with not just what the Trump administration did to the asylum system but also what it did not do. The bureaucratic infrastructure, capabilities, and procedures of the U.S. Border Patrol and other agencies involved in border security are outdated and in desperate need of reform. By and large, they were designed for a previous wave of immigration, one dominated by adult individuals coming to the United States in search of work. As asylum seekers, families, and children have come to make up an ever-larger proportion of arrivals, the United States has not updated its southern border strategy. It remains focused on enforcement above all else and has failed to invest in the capacity to humanely and efficiently screen and process vulnerable populations.
The Biden administration will thus have to balance unwinding Trump’s draconian policies with modernizing the southern border strategy so that it can handle mixed flows of migrants and asylum seekers. It will have to do so slowly, however, so that it does not give the impression that it is suddenly liberalizing asylum policies, which could trigger large new flows from Central America and Mexico.
Biden has also pledged to restore U.S. leadership on refugee resettlement. As president, he now has the executive authority to take many of the steps required to do so. For instance, he has the discretion, following consultation with Congress, to make good on his promise to raise the ceiling on admissions from 15,000 to 125,000 for the 2022 fiscal year, which begins in October.
But many refugee advocates are pushing Biden to revise this year’s ceiling, which was set by Trump. That may be difficult to accomplish. The Refugee Act of 1980 empowers the president to revise the refugee admissions cap, but only in response to an “unforeseen emergency refugee situation.” Given that many of the crises that have produced the most refugees are long running, any attempt to raise the cap without a strong rationale could invite legal challenges.
Biden must also breathe new life into the federal agencies and partner organizations that process, admit, and receive refugees who are resettled in the United States. Back in 2016, some state officials and nonprofit workers involved in settling refugees expressed private concerns about whether the resettlement system could withstand Obama’s proposed increase of the ceiling from 85,000 to 110,000 for the 2017 fiscal year. Now, the system is under much greater strain—and expected to ramp up resettlement to 125,000 for the 2022 fiscal year.
Resettlement agencies have signaled that they are prepared to quickly revive their operations by rehiring staff and reopening offices. The Biden administration can also hire new officers for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Refugee Corps, although doing so will require additional funding. More difficult will be supporting the local communities that will welcome large numbers of refugees under the administration’s plan, helping the newcomers find work, learn English, and gain access to medical and psychosocial services. Current placement policies tend to concentrate refugees in a relatively small number of locales, magnifying the local impact of resettlement. Many of these communities—and their already-stretched social service providers—are struggling under the weight of the pandemic and the accompanying recession. They may find it doubly difficult to serve vulnerable newcomers.
A final set of barriers to restoring refugee resettlement are the new vetting requirements for refugees of certain nationalities that the Trump administration instituted in October 2017 and that have drastically slowed refugee processing. Refugees from more national and demographic backgrounds are now required to undergo additional layers of screening, including providing social media profiles and physical addresses going back ten years. Collecting and evaluating all this data has created additional backlogs, which in turn have been exacerbated by staffing shortfalls.
The Biden administration can remove most of these requirements by issuing new internal procedures and guidelines for federal agencies and their partners, but it will have to do so in a way that does not invite charges of weakening security. Refugee advocates have thus called for a full audit of current security procedures to determine which of them add value and which could be streamlined or eliminated altogether. A similar review of local placement policies and processes could help ensure that decisions made at the federal level about how many refugees to admit and where to resettle them reflect the needs and concerns of the communities that will ultimately welcome the new arrivals.
To resurrect the United States’ asylum and refugee resettlement systems, Biden will have to restore public trust in and support for both. Once areas of broad bipartisan support, asylum and resettlement have become politicized—gradually after the 9/11 terror attacks and then rapidly under Trump. By treating all asylum seekers as though they were gaming the system and all refugees as security threats, the Trump administration has sought to discredit the asylum and resettlement systems and to cripple their effectiveness. A segment of the public has internalized these narratives and will not be dissuaded all at once.
But support for asylum and refugee resettlement remains robust in other segments of the population and may even have gotten a boost among Trump’s opponents. In 2019, Trump issued an order requiring the federal government to obtain the consent of states where refugees were to be resettled. Administration officials were reportedly taken aback when 42 states replied that they wanted to take in newcomers—the result of extensive advocacy efforts by local resettlement supporters. They shouldn’t have been surprised, however; in a recent survey, nearly three-quarters of Americans said that taking in refugees is an “important goal” for the United States. To preserve—and ideally, expand—this support for humanitarian protections, Biden’s team will need to rebuild and reform the United States’ asylum and resettlement systems so that they are able to meet modern realities, protect those in need, and prevent misuse.
SARAH PIERCE is a Policy Analyst with the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute.