Veena Iyer is the executive director at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. Credit: Immigrant Law Center

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Three months ago, President Joe Biden announced the United States would be welcoming refugees once again. In fact, he would set the cap higher than the last year of the Obama administration. And to help reach that goal, the Biden administration would also increase the refugee cap for the current year.

Then, he changed his mind. 

Each year, the president sets a number of refugees that the United States will admit. These are individuals who have fled violence in their home country to seek refuge in another. Refugees in the United States apply for green card status one year after being admitted.

The refugee cap has been a contentious issue since former president Donald Trump slashed the number to a record low, as part of his anti-immigrant agenda. Biden, meanwhile, embraced immigration reform and a more open America throughout his presidential campaign. Part of that agenda included significantly raising the number of refugees welcomed into the United States, this year and next. 

That plan seemed to go sideways on April 16. The refugee cap wouldn’t climb in 2021, Biden officials said. The decision sparked criticism from immigration advocates across the country. According to the National Immigration Forum, a research and advocacy group, 715 incoming refugees canceled their flights to the United States.

Later that day, the Biden administration backtracked—again— and said the U.S. will be increasing the number of refugees coming this year. But the president wouldn’t announce how many until May 15. 

This immigration policy flip flop has been confusing for immigration attorneys and advocates—but even more so for people waiting for family members stuck in refugee camps.

Minnesota has a big stake in this decision: It holds the highest number of refugees per capita in the United States. More than 480,000 immigrant residents in Minnesota make up 8.6 percent of the state’s population. About 33,000 refugees have relocated to the state in the last 15 years. 

Refugees hold a spending power of $2.9 billion in the state, according to New American Economy, a bipartisan research group. The majority of the state’s refugees come from Somalia and Myanmar—which is currently experiencing a military coup.

To parse through some of the confusion surrounding the refugee cap for this year, Sahan Journal spoke with the Immigrant Law Center’s executive director, Veena Iyer. The Immigrant Law Center is a nonprofit legal aid organization based in Saint Paul. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Here’s what Iyer told us:

As of this year, what’s the refugee cap at?

When we talk about the year, it’s the fiscal year. So the fiscal year 2021 is October 1, 2020 through September 30, 2021. For that fiscal year 2021, former President Trump had the first crack at setting the cap. He set it at a historic low of 15,000. 

President Biden had indicated since the inauguration that he was going to increase that cap to 62,500 for fiscal year 2021. That was the expectation. Until last week, when he announced—briefly, for part of a day—that he was not planning to increase the cap. Then, he reversed course and said he was going to increase the cap for this year and he’ll announce it in May. We hope that he will be increasing the cap to the full 62,500 that he had indicated earlier in the year.

He will also be announcing a cap for fiscal year 2022. He has indicated previously that he was going to aim to make that cap 125,000—which would be far higher than the cap under any year of the Trump administration. It actually would be higher than the last year of the Obama administration in 2017, which was 110,000. We hope that President Biden will increase those numbers to at least 125,000, in part because of the historically low numbers during the Trump administration. 

The Biden administration ran on a platform of humanitarian immigration and this is something that is well within the purview of the presidency: to ensure that we live up to our promises as a country.

What was all the confusion about last week?

Early in the day, there was an announcement that there was not going to be an increase to the refugee cap for fiscal year 2021, despite earlier indications that there was going to be an increase. Later that day, there was an about-face indicating that there would be an increase, but the administration wasn’t prepared to announce what that increase would be yet, and would do so in May.

What do you make of the backtrack from the Biden administration? What can we expect moving forward?

I can’t really speculate on exactly what happened there. There have been numerous reports about the whys. What I do think is important is that the president made a promise, that we were going to reopen our doors to refugees as we had historically done for the last 50 years or so. I am hopeful that the quick about-face that occurred on that day is an indication that the president intends to keep his promise. It may be delayed, but he intends to keep it. 

The fact that it is delayed concerns me. Because each day it’s delayed, there’s less time for refugees who fall within the cap to make their arrangements to come over here in the middle of a global pandemic. We need to raise that cap as quickly as possible to practically be able to bring everybody over.

What can we expect in May?

Given what happened last week, I would be shocked if there was not some increase in May. The question is how large that increase will be. 

It’s possible that Biden announces there won’t be an increase. The decision about what the refugee cap should be is within the discretion of the president. 

How does this affect people in Minnesota, especially people who are waiting on family in refugee camps?

Those are the folks I’m most worried about. There are families who have been waiting for years to be reunited with family members who are stuck in refugee camps. You also have very significant concerns among Minnesotans from Myanmar who now see a coup happening in their country and thousands of new refugees. 

At this juncture, the most important things for people to do are to keep an eye out for the announcement in May, to make sure that they understand what’s going on. Also, keep in contact with their families so they understand what’s going on on the ground at the refugee camps where they’re being processed. 

The other thing is just to advocate. There’s no doubt that part of the quick change that happened last week was because of very quick advocacy by a number of groups and individuals. We have some time right now to advocate for the highest possible cap. I would encourage folks to contact elected representatives to speak out about the need for a higher refugee cap. They can certainly put pressure on the president.

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