The United States anticipates receiving more than 300,000 new asylum claimants and refugees in Fiscal Year (FY) 2021. Pursuant to Section 207(d) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the President proposes resettling up to 15,000 refugees under the FY 2021 refugee admissions ceiling, and anticipates receiving new asylum claims that include more than 290,000 individuals. This proposed refugee admissions ceiling reflects the continuing backlog of over 1.1 million asylum-seekers who are awaiting adjudication of their claims inside the United States, and it accounts for the arrival of refugees whose resettlement in the United States was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Who is a Refugee?
Under Section 101(a)(42) of the INA, a refugee is an alien who, generally, has experienced past persecution or has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Individuals who meet the statutory definition may be considered for either refugee status under Section 207 of the INA if they are outside the United States, or asylum status under Section 208 of the INA, if they are already in the United States or present themselves at a U.S. port of entry. Both refugee and asylum status are forms of humanitarian protection offered by the United States.
Individuals outside the United States seeking admission as a refugee under Section 207 of the INA are processed through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), which is managed by the Department of State in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Those admitted as refugees are eligible for U.S. government-funded resettlement assistance, which is discussed in section III. Individuals in the United States seeking asylum status under Section 208 of the INA are processed by DHS and, in certain cases, by the Department of Justice (DOJ)’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR, also known as the immigration court system). Asylum applicants are not eligible for resettlement assistance through USRAP but are eligible for certain other forms of assistance and services run by state, private, and non-profit agencies, and they may apply for discretionary employment authorization under certain conditions.
Since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980, which incorporated this definition of refugee into the INA, the United States has accepted more than 3.8 million refugees and asylees. In FY 2020, the United States anticipates admitting approximately 11,000 refugees for resettlement and granting asylum to approximately 31,000 individuals.
Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Refugee resettlement in the United States decreased significantly in FY 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to travel restrictions in and out of refugee processing sites worldwide, USRAP suspended refugee arrivals from March 19 to July 29, 2020 except for emergency cases. USRAP resumed general refugee arrivals July 30, 2020 with additional health measures specified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, reduced flight availability due to the general decrease in demand for international travel meant a slow pace of refugee resettlement in the United States through the rest of FY 2020. Almost 7,000 of the 18,000 refugee numbers available under the FY 2020 Presidential Determination went unused. The President’s proposed refugee admissions ceiling for FY 2021 incorporates these places that might have been used if not for the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic also decreased the number of aliens seeking humanitarian protection at the U.S. southern border. In order to protect public health, CDC issued an order March 20, 2020 temporarily suspending the introduction of persons into the United States, subject to certain exceptions, who would otherwise be introduced into a congregate setting in a land Port of Entry or Border Patrol station at or near the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. Since then, credible fear receipts dropped significantly, from over 4,500 per month in January and February to approximately 500 to 700 per month in April through August 2020.
The decreased number of aliens seeking humanitarian protection at the U.S. southern border due to COVID-19 pandemic has increased USCIS’s capacity to address its case backlog. However, the COVID-19 pandemic also required USCIS to close its asylum offices to in-person services for nearly three months. When they re-opened to in-person services, it was with procedural changes and administrative controls to protect the health of the public and staff. These necessary measures have reduced asylum interview capacity, which may affect the number of asylum cases that can be completed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the assimilation of resettled refugees and approved asylees into American society and their progress towards self-sufficiency. Widespread hiring freezes, layoffs, and reduced hours, wages, and benefits in the hospitality and transportation industries hit many refugees, who often find their first jobs in these sectors. The closure of schools and childcare centers has also affected working refugees, who now must stay home to care for their children. In April 2020, HHS issued several policy letters and program guidelines allowing for various waiver and program flexibilities to address the impact of the pandemic. HHS also expanded the eligibility period for certain forms of assistance to refugees and provided additional funding to for emergency assistance needs.
Rising Protection Claims and Backlog
Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of aliens encountered along or near the U.S. southern border with Mexico. (Although the number of such encounters dipped at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has now returned to its pre-pandemic level.) This trend has corresponded with a sharp increase in the number and percentage of those who claim fear of persecution or torture when apprehended or encountered by DHS, as shown in the tables below.
In FY 2019, DHS received and completed more than 100,000 new credible fear cases, a record high since the credible fear process was introduced more than 20 years ago, and an increase of more than 113 percent since FY 2015. DHS also received over 148,000 new affirmative asylum cases, while the immigration courts received 213,320 new asylum filings. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United States led the world in the number of new asylum applications received in calendar years 2017, 2018, and 2019.
These new cases added to the lengthy backlog of pending claims, undermining the integrity of the asylum system. They delay the grant of asylum to individuals who are legitimately fleeing persecution and have valid claims. Further, such delays are a pull factor for illegal immigration. By providing protection from removal, they create an incentive for those without lawful status to enter and remain in the United States.
The increasing number of asylum claims also represents a cost to U.S. government benefits programs. While asylum applicants are not eligible for the Reception & Placement assistance offered to refugees and discussed in section III, those who have been granted asylum status under Section 208 of the INA are eligible for other assistance and services funded by the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). This is in addition to mainstream federal means-tested public benefits for which refugees and asylees are eligible, even ones otherwise unavailable to lawful permanent residents, as well as any other assistance they might receive under state law. For FY 2021, ORR predicts 45,600 asylees will be eligible.
To address this backlog, DHS has introduced efficiency measures to maximize case processing; undertaken regulatory, policy, and procedural changes to deter and screen for non-meritorious filings; and increased the USCIS Asylum Division’s adjudicative capacity by expanding its field office workforce and facilities.
DOJ continues to hire new immigration judges and support staff to reduce the case backlog in the immigration court system, which will include approximately 575,000 pending asylum cases at the end of FY 2020. It has hired 274 new immigration judges since the beginning of FY 2018, and it continues to seek additional courtroom space to increase its adjudicatory capacity. It has also implemented process improvements, such as the use of video teleconferencing, to maximize its existing adjudicatory capacity and ensure that the pending caseload does not increase at an even faster rate.
 Affirmative asylum applications are filed by asylum-seekers who are not in removal proceedings in the immigration court system. USCIS’s Asylum Division is responsible for processing affirmative asylum applications.
 The DOJ/EOIR immigration court system handles asylum applications filed by aliens who are in removal proceedings and asylum applications referred by USCIS.
Security Vetting in Refugee Admissions
The December 2017 National Security Strategy says the United States “will enhance vetting of prospective immigrants, refugees, and other foreign visitors to identify individuals who might pose a risk to national security or public safety” and “will set higher security standards to ensure that we keep dangerous people out of the United States.”
Refugees admitted to the United States are similar to individuals traveling on immigrant visas insofar as they are resettling here permanently and are afforded a pathway to U.S. citizenship. Refugees may pose an additional risk to the security of the United States because, if it is determined after admission that they present a threat to national security or public safety, it is extremely difficult to remove certain refugees in immigration proceedings for lack of a country to which they can be removed without the possibility of persecution. Due to limits on the maximum amount of time such aliens can be held, it is likely that a refugee without a country to return to would be released into the interior of the United States.
Pursuant to Executive Order 13780, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State and the Director of National Intelligence, developed a model to assess national security and public-safety threats for foreign nationals seeking to enter the United States. Among the risk factors considered is “whether the country is a known or potential terrorist safe haven.” Using that model, which has been updated and refined, the Secretary of Homeland Security has recommended, and the President has taken action, to restrict the travel of nationals from a number of countries due to, among other factors, a high risk relative to other countries in the world of terrorist travel to the United States. Among the countries whose nationals are subject to travel restrictions are Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
The threat to U.S. national security and public safety posed by the admission of refugees from high-risk areas of terrorist presence or control is significant and cannot be fully mitigated at this time. As a result, the President proposes not admitting any refugees from such areas, including Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, except those refugees of special humanitarian concern listed in the proposed FY 2021 allocations, such as those who have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion. These narrowly-tailored exceptions are appropriate in order to promote family unity and to promote U.S. humanitarian and foreign policy interests.
DHS/USCIS Credible Fear Caseload FY 2011-2020
|Fear Found||Fear Not Found||Closed||Pending at end of FY|
DHS/USCIS Asylum Caseload FY 2011-2020
|Fiscal Year||New receipts (individuals)||Receipts Pending at end of FY (individuals)|
DOJ/EOIR Immigration Court Asylum Caseload FY 2011-2020
|Fiscal Year||New filings (individuals)||Pending at end of FY (individuals)|
Refugee Admissions and Asylum Grants Since 1980
|Fiscal Year||Refugee Arrivals||Individual Asylum Grants||Annual Totals|