Understanding the Presidential Determination and the Role of Higher Ed Rebuilding of Refugee Resettlement

On September 8, 2022 the State Department and the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services transmitted the President’s Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2023, recommending a refugee admissions target of 125,000 for Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 to address the historic levels of global displacement. Following the consultation with Congress, President Biden signed the Presidential Determination on September 27, 2022 authorizing the admission of up to 125,000 refugees to the US during FY2023. At the same time, you may be hearing about the disappointing number of refugees that actually arrived in FY22, despite an admissions goal of 125,000. As of August 31, 2022 (note FY2022 ends on September 30, 2022), only 19,919 refugees have been resettled in the US. Below is a brief explanation of what this means, how to move forward, and the potential role of higher education in the rebuilding of refugee resettlement.

Rebuilding the infrastructure. The Trump administration each year would set the Presidential Determination at abysmally low levels, the lowest of which was FY2020 at 18,000 refugees. Not only was this devastating to the millions of refugees worldwide awaiting resettlement as their only lifeline, it decimated the refugee resettlement infrastructure. In the U.S., networks of refugee resettlement agencies are charged with providing resettlement and integration services. These agencies are primarily funded on a per capita basis and therefore their ability to build holistic and efficient programs is dependent on a continuous stream of new arrivals. Without refugee arrivals, programs, staff positions and entire offices were cut. In 2021, with Biden’s intention to restore the refugee admissions target, refugee resettlement agencies began preparing to rebuild the infrastructure. This effort was quickly accelerated as the U.S. evacuated 76,000 Afghans and charged the refugee resettlement agencies with providing resettlement services through the Afghan Placement & Assistance (APA) program. 

While the domestic resettlement system was forced to rebuild quickly, relying in part on the expansion of community supports such as higher education institutions, the overseas infrastructure did not receive the same infusion. The staff that conducts interviews and processes refugee cases overseas was cut significantly and “circuit rides” to conduct interviews were cut as well, significantly limiting the number of refugees cleared and ready for travel in the refugee resettlement pipeline. The result is a slow trickle of refugees resettling the U.S. 

Welcoming Afghans & Ukrainians. As we reflect on the past fiscal year, we must also recognize and celebrate the efforts to welcome Afghans and Ukrainians. Through the Uniting for Ukraine program, over 38,000 have arrived in the U.S.and another 75,000 are approved for travel.  In total, that means the U.S. welcomed over 200,000 displaced individuals (Ukrainians, Afghans, and resettled refugees) over the course of the past year. While that is still only a small fraction of the global displaced population, it demonstrates a vast growth in the US commitment and capacity to welcome refugees. 

Equity and racism in resettlement. While refugee resettlement is often seen as a humanitarian program, it has a long history of being steeped in the geopolitical interests of the U.S. Who is resettled, from which countries, and with what expediency has always reflected U.S. national political interests. Unfortunately, this past year has also illuminated how much this is still very true. This is an opportunity to say “Yes, and..” Yes we welcomed 76,000 Afghans, 100,000 Ukrainians, and 20,000 refugees AND we can still do better in FY23 to equitably welcome refugees from all over the world in need of humanitarian protections and a durable solution.

The opportunity for higher ed. We also know that being able to welcome over 200,000 displaced individuals to the U.S. was not without the support and capacity offered by higher education institutions. We watched colleges and universities across the country enroll students, welcome scholars, and open their doors to families in need of housing. The current and potential contributions of U.S. higher education institutions can profoundly expand the capacity of the U.S. to resettle and integrate refugees. The Report to Congress also includes a specific mention of the addition of the pilot private sponsorship program through the P-4 refugee admissions category, which could allow U.S. higher education institutions to identify and sponsor refugee students. This would be yet another way that US colleges and universities can expand the capacity and rebuilding of refugee resettlement.