Refugee advocates urge Biden to ‘rebuild’ US asylum system

Refugee advocates in the United States call on President-elect Joe Biden to reverse some of Donald Trump’s most restrictive immigration policies, including historically low admission quotas for asylum seekers, when he is taken in office in January.

Rebuilding the U.S. refugee program may take time, said Becca Heller, executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) advocacy group, but it is critical that thousands of asylum seekers wait for their claims to be heard. .

“The refugee program may take a while to rebuild, but the thousands of refugees who have already been waiting in limbo for years have run out of time,” Heller told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement. .

The US refugee admissions program was severely constrained under the Trump administration, which adopted increasingly restrictive refugee admission quotas and slice more than 80% acceptance of refugees compared to the last year of the administration of former President Barack Obama.

IRAP issued recommendations on Friday for the new Biden administration to deal with admissions of refugees and asylum seekers to the country – and to “rebuild” that federal admissions program.

The recommendations, Expanding Complementary Pathways for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: A Plan for the U.S. Government (PDF), point to six main areas where action can be taken, including family reunification, private sponsorship and work paths for refugees.

Increased targets

Biden has signaled his openness to increased refugee admissions.

He pledged to set a refugee admissions target of 125,000 per year and work with Congress to establish a minimum number of admissions of at least 95,000 refugees per year in June, on the occasion of the Day. refugee world, in line with historical averages.

It would be a radical departure from Trump’s measures: The Republican President’s final presidential decision on refugee admissions to the United States set the cap at 15,000, the the lowest since the promulgation of the Refugee Law of 1980.

Biden also reportedly planned to restoration of DACA, the Obama-era program that protects from the deportation of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, and ends the so-called “Muslim ban” which now bars travelers from 13 countries, which are not all predominantly Muslim.

Biden’s incoming administration is also expected to implement a 100-day freeze on evictions until updated guidelines are released.

US President-elect Joe Biden removes his face mask to speak in Wilmington, Delaware on November 16 [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

IRAP’s recommendations are lengthy, given the complexity of America’s refugee asylum and resettlement programs, which work with a wide range of organizations, from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to local governments. .

Many local resettlement agencies receive funds based on the number of refugees arriving in the United States.

This means that the decline in refugee resettlement admissions during the Trump administration has strained many of these groups, causing some to close, which could make resettlement more difficult in some areas.

But IRAP hailed Biden’s initial promises and stressed that “the new administration should make efforts from day one to put in place programs that reunite families and protect those at risk,” Heller said.

Among its recommendations, the group wanted Biden to issue executive orders that address “undue delays” and declare “family unity is a national priority.”

He also wanted Biden to help alleviate problems resulting from Trump’s restrictive policies, which have created bottlenecks and kept families separate – either through enforced separation or through extended application processing times.

‘A messy patchwork’

JC Hendrickson, senior director of public policy at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a global humanitarian organization that assists with the resettlement of refugees in the United States, told Al Jazeera that he welcomed Biden’s promises to expand refugee admissions and reverse Trump’s policies.

“But the US asylum system needs a closer look. It’s a messy patchwork of different laws, statutes and regulations, ”Hendrickson told Al Jazeera in an interview.

The IRC has issued its own recommendations, both on issues relating to the US-Mexico border and the refugee admission program, including a further in-depth study of the program.

No such study has been conducted since 2005, and Hendrickson said the global need for resettlement has increased over the past 15 years, driven in large part by conflict, economic fluctuations, climate change and other issues.

Many asylum seekers who reach the US-Mexico border come from countries struggling with these issues, whether it be security concerns related to organized crime or the recent hurricanes that have hit Central America.

But at the border, they adhere to “cruelty-driven policies” that limit “access to long-standing pathways” to seek safe asylum, Hendrickson said.

This includes the “Remain in Mexico” policy which requires asylum seekers to remain in Mexico until their hearings can take place in the United States.

While Biden has a lot to do in his first 100 days – an early measure to judge the effectiveness of a new president – Hendrickson said it would be necessary to create “a series of new policies” to protect them. asylum seekers.

Addressing the problems facing America’s asylum and refugee systems “is a huge task,” he said. “The world will watch how we handle this.”

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