A former Obama official says the Biden administration has its work cut out for it to fix refugee resettlement and asylum

  • Last month, in an interview with CBS News, President-elect Joe Biden's campaign officials outlined an immigration platform for the incoming administration.
  • It included reversing many of Trump's policies like the travel ban and family separation and bolstering the refugee cap and protecting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
  • Bob Carey, the former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Obama administration, spoke with Business Insider about how Biden could rebuild the asylum and refugee resettlement systems.
  • "The threat posed by domestic terrorism or homegrown terrorists far exceeds that posed by refugees, which is virtually nil," Carey told Business Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

With a promised reversal of immigration executive orders and a stated commitment to begin to restructure the United States' asylum system, the Biden administration has its work cut out on immigration, a former Obama official told Business Insider.

In an early November interview with CBS News, campaign officials for President-elect Joe Biden confirmed a host of immigration directives and policies the Biden-Harris administration plans to tackle. 

Most of the goals revolve around reeling in the measures taken by the Trump administration, including ending the Migrant Protections Protocol program, striking down the immigration restrictions that effectively were known as a Muslim ban, and fully restoring the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Campaign sources also confirmed to CBS News that the incoming administration would "look to implement a 100-day freeze on deportations while his administration issues guidance narrowing who can be arrested by immigration agents." 

Also mentioned was an imminent task force to locate children separated from their families at the border by DHS, and to raise the national refugee cap from Trump's record low of 15,000 to 125,000 admitteed.

Rebuilding the Office of Refugee Resettlement 

"It will be hard to rebuild these programs quickly when the infrastructure has been essentially eliminated. It eliminated a lot of expertise that was built up over decades," said Bob Carey, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the Obama administration from 2015-2017.

During Carey's last year in charge, Obama had set the refugee cap to 110,000.

That cap was repeatedly slashed under the Trump administration to 15,000 this year.

"I think within HHS, the State Department, Homeland Security, there was very little resistance to increasing the refugee cap to 110,000 in 2016," Carey said. "I think there was a recognition both in Syria and elsewhere that we were facing some of the greatest refugee crises of our time. And I think there was a recognition that every space that wasn't filled was a lost opportunity for someone to build a new life in the US." 

GOP members pushed back heavily against Obama raising the refugee ceiling in 2016. However, many immigration advocates argued that the number then was still too low.

When asked about the gutting of the asylum protocols, at the border and across the Trump administration legal actions, Carey said, "There's a significant backlog in asylum adjudications, and the Remain in Mexico Policy has really prevented individuals whose lives are in danger from making a claim in courts here in the US, which in violation not only in past practice, but arguably of international law." He added that it would take time to rectify and to have the capacity in the courts to eventually hear more asylum cases as well.

Carey zeroed in on the cooperative spirit needed among federal agencies but also in the international community if Biden's immigration priorities are going to be successful.  

"The family separation policy was something that was not envisioned in a prior administration and, in fact, would never have been even considered or tolerated," Carey said. "Our policies were in place to protect children and recognize that children are inherently vulnerable, particularly those who are fleeing conflict situations. The principle of protecting children and keeping families intact have existed in immigration law for countless administrations until this one." 

"I think what was probably lesser known is that the principle behind a lot of the refugee program was not only assisting individuals whose lives were in danger on the basis of a well-founded fear of persecution, but a large element of the program was reuniting separated families," Carey added, hopeful that Biden's administration would revive a practice of reuniting, not separating families. 

In terms of the scope of ORR's future work under Biden, Carey also said that "there is an opportunity to rethink what could work better," for immigrants.

A community effort

Carey also acknowledged the ecosystem of NGOs, volunteers, and former refugees who powered much of the refugee resettlement prior to Trump's administration. 

"There were people, many of them former refugees who were dedicated to this work and had both language capacity and expertise in finding employment or social services, or just assisting children in acculturating to schools. You don't find people who can speak 36 languages quickly. And many of these programs have a cross-cultural understanding or understand how to deal with victims of trauma and survivors of torture," Carey said. 

Carey also stressed that on top of the over 400 legal tweaks, Biden would have to contend immigration policies with the notion that the pandemic may have deprioritized immigration reforms.

"There are challenges that were not present during the Obama administration that are going to complicate or present obstacles to expanding the program," Carey said. "And I think refugees generally enter entry-level jobs in the service industry, and that's an area that's been particularly hard hit in the economic downturn." 

Although he is hopeful for a more humanitarian outlook in the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Carey said that deep fixes like addressing application backlogs, tackling staffing issues, and restructuring asylum hearings "are not a spigot you can turn on overnight." 

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