As fiscal year 2023 comes to a close at the end of September, the latest data from the State Department paints a clear picture: the U.S. refugee program is back. According to nearly all available program indicators, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) is likely operating from a stronger position today than at any point during the 21st century.
After massive annual cuts by the Trump administration, the refugee program was further decimated during COVID-19 as international travel and coordination plummeted. Those steep cuts were gradually reversed, the pipeline was rebuilt, and the process improved dramatically. Today, days away from the start of a new fiscal year that will very likely set a record for 21st-century arrivals, the data gives a lot to celebrate as the Biden administration has officially restored the U.S. refugee program and is set to take it to new heights through exciting policy innovations, new technological breakthroughs, and significant investments in personnel.
Monthly arrivals increase dramatically from first to second half of the year
USRAP has faced five years of severe setbacks. In 2021, refugee arrivals through the USRAP program were at an all-time historic low, with only 11,411 arrivals. Five months into FY 2023, USRAP showed little improvement. Monthly refugee arrivals averaged only about 2,400 people, on pace to resettle only about 29,000 people despite a 125,000-person refugee admissions ceiling.
Yet, several behind-the-scenes indicators demonstrated that USRAP agencies and partners were steadily rebuilding the resettlement pipeline. This aligns with our assertion in March that the program was set up for a major boost based on underlying metrics of new hires added and a jump in refugee interviews.
Between February and March, the arrival number doubled from 3,069 to 6,122. Since March, the USRAP has sustained these arrival numbers, averaging 6,487 people per month, compared to an average of 2,461 arrivals in the first half of the year. This is a 164% increase in the number of refugees the USRAP program has brought to the U.S. per month, on average, in the second half of the year compared to the first.
Data is sourced from the monthly Refugee Admissions Report at wrapsnet.org
*This number does not include the final month, September, of FY2023
Looking ahead to next year, FY24 could see upwards of 78,000 arrivals, close to the 2016 high, with nearly 85,000 refugees resettled — the highest total in 20 years.
However, if the program continues to grow, FY24 could jump past the number and set a new record. Given the latest figures from the Biden administration, the domestic and international infrastructure, personnel, and pipeline are poised for a record-breaking year.
USCIS has significantly increased its number of employees, circuit rides, and interviews
In FY23, refugee officers conducted 91,000 interviews–more than double the number of interviews they completed in 2022.
After doubling its employees in the Refugee Corps from 189 in FY2021 to 304 in FY2022, USCIS added 67 more officers to conduct interviews in FY2023 — a new high based on available data.
Officers went on 115 circuit rides to 60 overseas locations. Circuit rides are a critical step in the USRAP pipeline when teams of refugee and supervisory refugee officers, Fraud Detection staff, and National Security officers travel overseas to interview refugee applicants and determine whether they meet the legal definition of a refugee.
The chart below shows just how significant the Trump and Covid-era cuts to the program’s backend infrastructure were and the dramatic upsizing in FY23.
|Fiscal Year||Authorized Refugee Corps Staff||USCIS Circuit Rides||USCIS Interviews|
Data is sourced from FY 2020 Appropriations Reporting Requirement Refugee Data FY2016-FY2019 and the FY 2022 Appropriations Reporting Requirement Refugee Data FY 2018-FY 2021 Update and Inquiry from Senators. Information about Refugee Corps staffing pre-2016 was not readily available, though it is worth analyzing.
*Numbers sourced from the 2022 Appropriations Report. These numbers were previously higher but were “corrected to remove headquarters refugee officers, managers, and mission support.” Numbers now only include field-level refugee officers and first-line supervisory refugee officers in the Refugee Corps.
**7 circuit rides were scheduled, but only one was completed before the pandemic led to circuit ride halts.
***Data was obtained during the September 20, 2023 USCIS Refugee Admissions Quarterly Stakeholder Engagement.
Streamlining systems to reduce processing times
This year, USCIS piloted “concurrent processing” to reduce the time between processing stages in the USRAP pipeline. This means scheduling pipeline tasks are completed simultaneously, rather than requiring one task to be fully completed before scheduling it for the next stage (as was the previous precedent). In Q1 and Q2, USCIS sent circuit rides to nine new concurrent processing sites. Five new sites were added between Q1 and Q2, and another expansion to five more sites occurred in the third quarter. The expansion of concurrent processing to more sites will have dramatic effects on streamlining processing times for refugees.
The refugee program in FY23 resettled more refugees than in FY20, FY21, and FY22 combined. But numbers are only one reliable metric in assessing the state of the resettlement system. The system has undergone major technological improvements, and nearly all open agency positions have been filled, modernizing the agency after years of neglect.
Plus, over the last year, the State Department has reduced its backlog of refugee cases pending since 2018. More than 20,000 cases were resolved this year.
The administration helped launch the Resettlement Diplomacy Network, driving diplomatic engagement between resettlement states to expand refugee protection opportunities globally.
The Welcome Corps was launched, allowing private sponsors to resettle refugees directly. A special program for colleges and universities was also launched, and a third iteration is coming later this fall. This will increase public engagement in resettlement and help improve outcomes for refugees connected to more substantial community networks.
The Biden administration has taken significant, much-needed strides in restoring the refugee program. We look forward to continuing to monitor the progress in FY24, hoping to reach a new high-water mark for resettlement.