US says record-low refugee admissions partly due to pandemic

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FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2021, file photo Haitian migrants use a dam to cross into the United States from Mexico in Del Rio, Texas. President Joe Biden embraced major progressive policy goals on immigration after he won the Democratic nomination, and he has begun enacting some. But his administration has been forced to confront unusually high numbers of migrants trying to enter the country along the U.S.-Mexico border and the federal response has inflamed both critics and allies. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The Biden administration said Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic and the difficulty of reversing Trump administration policies were responsible for the record-low number of refugees admitted to the United States during the 2021 budget year.

The State Department, in an email to The Associated Press, said 11,411 refugees had been allowed into the United States during the budget year that ended Thursday. That was less than the previous low -- 11,814 in 2020 – and far below the 62,500 ceiling President Joe Biden had set in May.

The Associated Press reported Monday that admissions hit a record low, citing a person who had access to the information but spoke on condition of anonymity. The State Department’s number was slightly lower than the figure of 11,445 in that report. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.

Not included in the refugee tally were the tens of thousands of Afghans brought to the United States as American troops withdrew from Afghanistan, ending the 20-year war there. Many of those Afghans were allowed into the country under a different legal status known as humanitarian parole.

Still the number highlights Biden's challenges in reversing the restrictive refugee policies set by former President Donald Trump's administration, which targeted the program as part of a broader campaign to slash both legal and illegal immigration to the United States. Biden, who co-sponsored legislation creating the refugee program more than four decades ago, has said reopening the door to refugees is “how we will restore the soul of our nation.”

The U.S. president determines the cap on refugee admissions each budget year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

The 11,411 refugee admissions total falls below the record-low ceiling of 15,000 that Trump had initially set for the 2021 budget year, which began Oct. 1, 2020, nearly four months before Biden took office. Biden replaced Trump’s cap in May.

The State Department said the record-low number reflects the damage done by the Trump administration to the program, while the administration's rebuilding efforts were curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic that in many cases prevented officers from doing in-person interviews abroad, among other things.

The State Department said it is planning a “robust resumption of interviews" both in-person and virtually and it has requested more referrals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The department underscored that the government is also resettling tens of thousands of Afghans who were part of one of the largest mass evacuations in U.S. history in the chaotic days following Afghanistan's fall to the Taliban this summer.

“The rebuilding process is well underway and will enable us to support much increased admissions numbers in future years,” the department said in an email to the AP.

Biden initially indicated he would not override Trump's 15,000-person cap in 2021, saying in an emergency determination that it “remains justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest."

But that brought sharp rebuke from Democratic allies who criticized him for not taking the symbolic step of authorizing more refugees this year. The White House quickly reversed course and raised the cap, though Biden said at the time that he did not expect the U.S. would meet the new 62,500 ceiling with only four months left in the 2021 budget year amid a pandemic.

The Biden administration has expanded the narrow eligibility criteria put in place by his predecessor that had kept out most refugees, among other steps. But critics contend it's not been enough.

The administration plans to set a cap of 125,000 admissions for this budget year, which started Friday. That would exceed the historical yearly average that was 95,000 under previous Republican and Democratic administrations.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of nine U.S. agencies working to resettle refugees, said to reach that goal “the administration must be aggressive and innovative in ramping up processing."

Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, said it will require more federal support of resettlement agencies. The administration is requesting $1.7 billion for refugee resettlement this budget year, up from last year's $966 million.

“The Biden administration has its work cut out to return the United States to a position of leadership when it comes to welcoming people seeking refuge,” Noorani said.

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Associated Press writer Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this report.

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