Wellstone International High School serves brand-new refugee and immigrant students in their late teens. Credit: Riham Feshir | MPR News

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President Joe Biden announced Thursday he will set a cap of 125,000 refugee admissions for the first full fiscal year of his term, a move that will undo one of the signature policies of the Trump administration and likely speed up long-awaited reunification for some Minnesota families.  

The president is responsible for setting a limit for how many refugees the United States will accept in a given year. Former President Donald Trump set a record low for the refugees admissions cap—as well as the number of actual refugees resettled—in the last four years. On his way out of office, Trump set the cap at a historic low of 15,000, which will remain in effect for the next eight months.

At his first major foreign policy speech at the State Department, Biden pledged to restore the refugee admissions program. The new cap will go into effect at the start of the next fiscal year on October 1.

“Today, I’m approving an executive order to begin the hard work of restoring our refugee admissions program to help meet the unprecedented global need,” Biden said. “It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged.”

The Biden administration announced a three-part immigration reform plan Tuesday. The administration will focus on the underlying causes of migration by confronting the instability, violence, and economic insecurity that drives migrants from their home countries. The administration will also work with regional partners, foreign governments, and international organizations to provide protection for asylum seekers and migrants closer to home. It will also ensure that Central American refugees and asylum seekers specifically have access to legal avenues to the United States.

“The situation at the border will not transform overnight, due in large part to the damage done over the last four years,” a statement from the White House said. “But the president is committed to an approach that keeps our country safe, strong, and prosperous and that also aligns with our values.”

Refugee resettlement advocates in Minnesota say an increase in refugee admissions will allow more families to be reunited in Minnesota. The state’s economy would likely also benefit from an influx of refugee arrivals.

Representative Ilhan Omar said in a statement that she is hopeful that others will find the same peace and opportunity she dreamed of when she came to the United States as a refugee. Since taking office, Ilhan has advocated for executive action on the refugee admissions cap.

“Today, President Biden has signaled to the world that we will no longer turn our back to those suffering from global catastrophe,” Ilhan said in a statement.

Refugee resettlement in Minnesota drastically declined under Trump. Two thousand refugees resettled in the state in 2016. In 2020, the state admitted only 386. Since October, 25 refugees have arrived in Minnesota. 

More than 480,000 immigrant residents in Minnesota make up 8.6 percent of the state’s population. Since 2005, a total of about 33,000 refugees have relocated to the state. The majority of the state’s refugees come from Somalia and Myanmar. Some of them have family members who have been waiting in camps in Kenya or Thailand for decades.

The International Institute of Minnesota, one of the largest refugee resettlement agencies in the state, resettled 109 refugees as of September—compared to more than 500 in 2016. This year, the agency has resettled six refugees so far. The agency is expecting two more Ethiopian refugees scheduled to arrive from Kenya later this month. 

Micaela Schuneman, the director of refugee services at the International Institute, said she’s thrilled to see an administration that understands the increasing need to support refugee resettlement.

“It’s really nice to have that message from the White House, that this is an important program and the U.S. wants to become a leader in resettling refugees again,” Schuneman said.

While Schuneman, her coworkers, and the agency’s clients are excited to see an increasing number of arrivals, she added that it will take a long time to rebuild the infrastructure necessary to admit, process, and resettle refugees. Recently, Schuneman has received requests from clients inquiring about their family members’ case statuses. Because of all the damage that’s been done to the system, Schuneman said she’s been telling her clients that movement on those cases has been slow. 

Resettlement agencies typically receive funding based on how many refugees they resettle during the year. Because arrivals have been down, agencies across the country have either lost funding or closed altogether. The International Institute has not received any updates from the State Department about increasing support for the agencies yet, Schuneman said

Since the cap imposed by Trump won’t expire until October, Schuneman called these next eight months a period for rebuilding. The State Department, for example, will need to hire and train more people to work at places where refugees are waiting. At the International Institute, Schuneman said the staff is considering reinstating their robust volunteer program after the pandemic.

“We’re excited. But we’re trying to be realistic,” Schuneman said. “That’s the hardest part for everyone, and especially for the people waiting for their families.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.