Local refugee organizations prepare to rebuild after Biden raises cap

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Only 21 refugees have been resettled to Indiana so far this fiscal year, in the midst of a global pandemic and a historically low federal annual cap on the number of refugees allowed in the United States. On Monday, the Biden administration quadrupled that limit, from 15,000 to 62,500, effective May 15.

Indianapolis refugee organizations aren’t certain how fast they’ll see an impact from the cap change, which affects the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30.

President Joe Biden first proposed raising the cap on Feb. 12, but failed to sign the presidential determination until Monday after expanding eligibility criteria. The change was a reversal from April, when Biden announced he would keep the lower limit in place, sparking backlash from refugee advocates. Within hours, his administration promised to set a higher cap by mid-May.

He made the change despite admitting last month in an emergency determination that the existing cap was “justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest.”

“The sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year,” Biden admitted Monday in a statement.

Indianapolis refugee organizations agreed.

“Due to the delays of the pandemic, it’s unlikely we’ll actually reach those numbers this year—but what it does do is signal our values,” said Heidi Smith, director of refugee services at Catholic Charities Indianapolis, which runs a refugee resettlement program.

Honestly, it filled me with joy,” Smith said about the higher cap. “This administration is sending a very different message to our country about the importance of welcoming refugees.”

The old cap, set by the Trump administration, “did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees,” Biden said.

Typically, switches in the admissions cap can “pretty quickly” drive changes in the number of refugees that resettlement agencies help out, Smith said. But with COVID-19 still slowing things down, “it’s hard to know what to expect,” she added.

Her organization is still waiting for more information from its national agency, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The new 62,500-person limit is more than symbolic even if the country doesn’t reach it. Refugee organizations around the country will have the chance to get up and running again after admissions slowed to a trickle during the pandemic. Biden said he would increase the cap to 125,000 for fiscal year 2022, which begins in October.

“Now, we can start to plan and budget and rebuild the infrastructure that had nearly started to collapse, both at refugee agencies and at camps abroad,” said Cole Varga, executive director of Exodus Refugee Immigration, another Indianapolis resettlement agency.

In the first quarter of 2017, I had to eliminate 15 positions,” Varga said, after the Trump administration cut the cap to 45,000 people, down from 85,000 the year before. Before then, Exodus alone had been resettling 900 refugees a year, in addition to serving existing clients.

Just 2,050 refugees arrived in the United States from October 2020 through the end of March, according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center. Indiana received 21 people in total, a number Varga said Exodus had once welcomed in single afternoons.

For Exodus, preparing to resettle more people will take hiring and training new staff. But it’s complicated by the way refugee programs are funded: based on the number of refugees served.

“If nobody is coming, then nobody is funding it, either,” Varga said. “We need the staff before the people get here, but we need the people to get the funding.”

The State Department, which helps administer the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, is working on something that could help bridge the gap, Varga said. Exodus has also gotten some private funding, he added.

Rebuilding will also take coordination. Catholic Charities Indianapolis’ refugee wing, for instance, collaborates with local organizations and companies to find refugees housing, basic household items and jobs.

We get a lot of calls from employers that want to hire our clients—it definitely had an impact on the business community when that pipeline of potential employees was negatively impacted,” Smith said.

When admissions start climbing, Smith’s organization will need to tell employers, typically in warehousing, they’ve got people ready to go.

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