Raising the refugee cap is not enough

Raising the refugee cap is not enough
5 min read
07 May, 2021
Comment: Allocating more funding to resettlement organisations will not fill the gaps created by four years of neglect, writes Zaina Ujayli.
Guatemalan woman touches map at refugee centre in El Paso, Texas. [Getty]
This week, President Biden backpedaled yet again on this year’s refugee ceiling. While Biden initially planned to keep the refugee ceiling cap at 15,000, his administration has now raised the ceiling to 62,500. 

This isn’t the first time his administration shared mixed messages about his plans for America’s refugee resettlement programme. When he was a candidate, Biden pledged to raise the refugee ceiling, but as president, it seemed his administration was willing to settle on the cap set by his predecessor. That Biden changed his mind after backlash from Democrats has been heralded as a win for the left; however, the increasingly political character of the number bodes poorly for refugee resettlement in America

The refugee cap is more than a number for Democrats and Republicans to fight over. Right now, it represents America’s humanitarian voice globally, our resettlement programme’s capacity, and our national sentiment towards welcoming the most vulnerable populations. In other words, the number of a refugee cap is just the tip of an iceberg. 

In order to understand its impact, I am going to show you the ice beneath the surface. 

America resettles less than 1% of the world’s refugee population. 

Say you’re one of the lucky few who the US does resettle. By the time you arrive in a US airport, you will have undergone numerous interviews and carry a folder full of paperwork to prove it. According to the refugee ceiling, you - as a number - have arrived. You are a token of success or failure depending on the political party. Your story ends. 

Your journey, however, does not. 

  A leasing office needs to take a chance on you, but if the government won’t, why should they?  

When you arrive as a refugee, the US government gives you approximately a $1100 stipend. Those $1100 dollars are supposed to provide you housing, transportation, and food for three months. Not $1100 per month - $1100 total for three months. 

You will soon learn that, between your security deposit, rent, food, and bus fares, even the world’s best budgeter would struggle to start a new life on that sum, regardless of which American city your flight lands. 

Luckily for you, as a refugee you have a lifeline - a caseworker who greets you at the airport. Receiving a roughly equivalent sum from the government for your case, they help find you housing, establish primary care, and learn a little about living in the United States. 

An abandoned boat used by migrants to cross the Straits of Dover. [Getty]
Read more: Migration in post-Brexit Britain: How will refugees and asylum seekers be affected?

Here’s the problem - say you arrive when the US has chosen a low refugee cap. Because your refugee resettlement agency’s funding is partly tied to arrivals, they likely cannot maintain full time staff because of the cuts.

What that means is that the caseworker who spoke your language was laid off the month before, so you have to rely on an interpreter to ask the most basic questions - and even that service is scarce. After all the budget cuts, your agency lost their interpretation programme and now relies entirely on volunteers. 

The heightened political controversy may discourage community partners. You see, when refugees became a political issue, many of the leasing offices your agency once worked with pulled out of partnerships. Ask any American - how easy is it to rent a good place with no credit history, no income, and no ID? A leasing office needs to take a chance on you, but if the government won’t, why should they?

When the Trump administration’s refugee cap hit my agency, the cap meant that our programme that once resettled about 80 people a month was barely resettling five. That meant lay-offs, programme cuts, and, with other neighbouring agency closures, the pressure of trying to provide resettled refugees with everything they needed with only a quarter of the resources. Now that the refugee ceiling will rise, they might get the resources they need to rebuild their capacity and bring back the caseworkers they have lost.

President Biden himself acknowledges that, due to the cuts over the past four years, the government will likely not reach the ceiling. He said: “We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years. It will take some time, but that work is already underway.” 

  We will be asking our resettlement programmes to rebuild on a foundation of sand  

However, trying to “undo the damage of the last four years” by simply refunding resettlement organisations without finding a creative way to disentangle everything that is refugee resettlement from an increasingly politicised number, we will be asking our resettlement programmes to rebuild on a foundation of sand. 

If we really want to support refugee resettlement in this country, then our conversation needs to move past advocating for a higher refugee ceiling and focus on making resettlement sustainable in this country both for refugees and the agencies which welcome them. Right now, how we not only “undo the damage” of the past four years, but reimagine refugee resettlement in America, is more important than celebrating or criticising the symbolic number the President has chosen, but cannot reach.

Zaina Ujayli is an MA student at The University of Virginia focusing on nineteenth and twentieth century Arab and Arab American writers.

Follow her on Twitter: @zainaujayli

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.