The Brass Tacks of Rebuilding US Leadership on Refugee Resettlement and Why It Matters

The Biden administration recently submitted its annual report to Congress on proposed refugee admissions for FY2023. A reflection of US leadership during an unprecedented global displacement crisis, the proposal preserves the FY2022 target of resettling 125,000 refugees. That’s despite projections that only 23,000 to 25,000 refugees will be resettled in the current fiscal year (see figure 1). However, the low FY2022 number relative to the target is somewhat misleading: the report notes that the Biden administration will have supported the resettlement of over 105,000 individuals in FY2022 due to the historic welcome of more than 80,000 Afghans through Operations Allies Welcome. An additional 50,000-plus individuals have been welcomed through a Department of Homeland Security program, Uniting for Ukraine, which provides temporary parole for Ukrainians with a sponsor. (While those who enter through Uniting for Ukraine do not receive initial reception and placement support from the State Department, they are eligible for temporary health, cash, employment, and other services from the Department of Health and Human Services.)

While any global leader needs to “walk and chew gum” at the same time, the effort to rapidly welcome Afghans required intense engagement from the highest levels of government to service providers on the frontlines. This major undertaking took place in the wake of an administration that targeted the resettlement program for dismantling and amid a global pandemic, growing economic uncertainty, and housing shortages. (Disclosure: from March 2021 to May 2022, I was the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services that supports the economic and social inclusion of refugees, as well as Afghan and Ukrainian parolees, upon their arrival to host communities in the US.)

As described in the report, the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) serves multiple foreign policy objectives, including “exemplifying a values-based foreign policy,” “building a system that promotes safe, orderly, and humane lawful immigration,” and sharing responsibility while facilitating negotiations with countries on humanitarian conditions (especially low- and middle-income countries who host 83 percent of the world’s refugees). In addition, robust evidence shows that resettlement supports economic development. CGD colleague Michael Clemens calculates that the reduction of refugee admissions to the United States starting in 2017 cost the economy over $9.1 billion per year. His estimates are more accurate than prior ones because they include the economic ripple effects beyond the wages earned and taxes paid by refugees. The economic impacts are even more profound at a time of labor shortages and an aging population. Leaders in states such as Kentucky, Maine, and Michigan are incorporating refugees into their strategies to fill jobs and revitalize local economies.

While recognizing the progress made since 2021, rebuilding US leadership on resettlement will require a step change in resettlement numbers and approaches. This includes learning from the Afghan and Ukraine responses without expecting that they can or should be replicated whole cloth. It also requires high-level political commitment alongside bureaucratic changes and innovations. The latter task is arguably harder, but more important. With a four-year presidential election cycle, the administration is only guaranteed little more than two years to strengthen the system. The US government and partners must focus on brass tacks to help meet the current moment—one in which more than 100 million people have been forced to flee their homes, including more than 27 million who have crossed borders in search of safety.

Figure 1.

*In May 2021, the Biden administration raised the FY2021 refugee admissions target from 15,000 to 62,500 to reinforce efforts to expand US resettlement capacity while recognizing it would not be possible to meet the target with only 5 months left in the fiscal year.

**As of August 31, 2022. The State Department projects 23,000-25,000 total arrivals for FY2022. Figure includes refugee arrivals; it does not include the estimated 80,000 Afghans who arrived through Operation Allies Welcome, or the 50,000 Ukrainians welcomed through Uniting for Ukraine in FY2022.

Learning from the Afghan and Ukraine responses

A key lesson from decades of the US refugee program is that diverse groups and individuals are interested in supporting resettlement. However, as was particularly salient during the height of the Afghan response, there is insufficient capacity to translate that interest into direct engagement. To help address this challenge, the State Department increased the capacity of the nine existing resettlement agencies to resettle Afghans and engage volunteers. In addition, the Department created an innovative, emergency Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans. The program enabled groups of private individuals to provide services equivalent to those of resettlement agencies—helping to meet urgent needs. The new program resettled hundreds of Afghan families, but this represented only a fraction of willing sponsors. And since then, nearly 124,000 sponsors have applied to sponsor Ukrainians, with nearly 51,000 arrivals to the US in just over four months.

As directed in an executive order in February 2021, the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration was developing a private sponsorship pilot prior to the Afghan evacuation. By necessity, the Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans was set up quickly without a comprehensive or sustainable infrastructure. The private sponsorship pilot that will roll out in the final months of 2022 should learn from the emergency experiences. This includes the importance of harnessing the scale of public support and addressing gaps in coordination with state and local partners, many of whom experienced multiple rounds of “hurrying up and waiting.” The pilot should lay the groundwork for a durable program that grows over time and serves as an anchor for USRAP capacity and public engagement across the country.

In addition, the administration should continue to build on the high-level attention, tight coordination with relevant agencies, and streamlining efforts that emerged during the Afghan and Ukraine responses. It has taken an important step in centralizing security vetting into the National Vetting Center, but more must be done to safely and quickly increase the pipeline of refugees eligible for admission to the US. This includes continuing to expand the use of video technology for interviews, innovative staffing models (e.g., matching USCIS Refugee Corps officers with applicant interviews based on experience and case complexity), and eliminating unnecessary or duplicative steps as highlighted by the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP).

The latest report to Congress highlights the administration’s commitment to delivering on a significant recommendation made by IRAP and others: ensuring high-level oversight and coordination through a White House senior staff member. The White House created a new Special Advisor for Refugee Admissions, charged with modernizing USRAP. Importantly, the incumbent, Andrew Nacin, has deep experience with digital solutions and process improvement that will be vital to driving rapid operational progress.

Finally, with large numbers arriving from Afghanistan in a short period of time, the administration expanded services for incoming Afghans, including specialized resources for housing as well as increased support for education, women’s economic empowerment, and mental health programs. Such investments are the foundation for both improving well-being and maximizing economic contributions. As noted above, refugees provide significant net economic benefits and these increased supports, if maintained for USRAP, are very likely to have high returns. The administration should also deepen partnerships with states and localities to co-invest in solutions that increase affordable housing and improve services for all populations.

Recommendations for rebuilding

Given current trends in displacement, the administration should take the following actions to increase capacity and accountability, leverage public enthusiasm, and help ensure that responding to urgent needs doesn’t crowd out the operational brass tacks to rebuild USRAP:

  • Release a public report on operational lessons learned from Operation Allies Welcome and Uniting for Ukraine and how the administration will incorporate those lessons into USRAP, including the private sponsorship pilot.
  • Ensure robust staffing and support for the Special Advisor for Refugee Admissions, including from senior leaders at the White House, Department of Homeland Security, and State Department, to streamline and modernize security vetting and other processes. While the Special Advisor currently focuses on overseas processing, the office should expand its scope over time to identify efficiencies and reforms across the international and domestic systems.
  • Prioritize the private sponsorship pilot, set a FY2023 target for resettlement under the new program that is ambitious but feasible, and harness energy by engaging diverse, broad-based partners across the country.
  • Invest in complementary pathways, in particular employer sponsorship of refugees, to deliver the benefits of providing protection, meeting labor market needs, and expanding the group of champions for the refugee program. Such a pathway should be accompanied by enhanced programming to prevent and address risks of labor exploitation and trafficking.
  • Maintain increased investment in refugee economic and social inclusion in host communities, including housing and other support, and emphasize approaches and partnerships that meet the needs of host communities and refugees. This could include investing in character-based loan programs that enable refugees, who lack collateral and credit histories, to more quickly upskill and re-enter professions that they practiced in their countries of origin.
  • Conduct a study of the returns of the increased investment in economic and social inclusion during the Afghan response to further build the evidence base on refugee admissions.

Not a moment to spare

Now that the State Department has completed its consultations with Congress, the next step is for President Biden to sign the Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for FY2023. A swift signing would demonstrate continued attention and commitment to resettling refugees from around the world through USRAP, even as the Ukraine response unfolds. It is critical to commit to concrete and bold action before the window of opportunity to build on public support for Afghans and Ukranians fades. The tone and approach of the Biden administration is a welcome relief from the prior administration, but partner countries—especially those hosting the vast majority of refugees—will be watching to see if its actions will match its ambitions.

This blog is the first of two on US Leadership in Refugee Resettlement. Thank you to Claire Manley, Jocilyn Estes, and Erin Collinson for their input and comments.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.