The lowering of the refugee ceiling began under President Trump, and the sudden drop, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, dismantled much of the infrastructure needed to resettle refugees, including the work done in the United States by a number of faith-based groups, including World Relief, Church World Service, and HIAS, the latter founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
In 2021, President Biden set the refugee ceiling at 15,000 — the lowest since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, which sets the parameters for the current refugee resettlement system. That ceiling was later raised to 65,000 after faith groups protested.
This past year, the ceiling was set at 125,000 — however, the U.S. only resettled about 60,000 refugees in fiscal year 2023, according to the “Closed Doors” report.
That shortfall is due in large part to the aftereffects of the pandemic, said Matt Soerens, vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief. The screening process for refugees, which takes years, was shut down during the pandemic and was slow to restart.
World Relief, which has resettled just over 7,000 people during the past year, including refugees from Afghanistan and Iraqis with Special Immigrant Visas, and the other resettlement agencies closed down offices and laid off staff when the refugee resettlement program shut down. Restarting those offices and adding staff has taken time as the agencies rebuild their domestic infrastructure.
“We are expanding,” he said. “I wish I could have the confidence to expand even more, but it’s very expensive to raise the space and hire staff and then have to lay them all off three years later.”
Calling the resettling of 60,000 refugees a sign of progress, Soerens credits the Biden administration with helping the agencies to rebuild the overseas resettlement infrastructure, but added, “They didn’t start nearly as quickly as we would have liked them to.”
Part of the impetus for the “Closed Doors” report, he said, was to put pressure on the Biden administration to continue that progress.
Soerens said that he hopes in the future, the refugee resettlement program will be more stable. For years, he said, the program enjoyed bipartisan support and was seen as a source of pride for American leaders — and a sign that America was living up to its ideals.
“We’ve had a history of being a refuge for those fleeing persecution for any number of reasons, among them, religious persecution,” he said. “I think that we’re at risk of losing that.”
While the report focuses primarily on Christian refugees, resettlement groups also worry about those from minority faiths, including Jews and Yazidis, who have “largely been shut out of refugee resettlement in recent years,” according to the report.
“As Christians, we believe that all people have the right to religious freedom and that religious minorities of any sort — not just those who share our Christian faith — should be protected,” the report said.