The Global Refugee Crisis is an American Issue: A Call to the Biden Administration for Immigration Reform

BIMI at UC Berkeley
Jan 19 · 5 min read

BY: Pelin Ensari

Photo by Ted Eytan

On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States of America. President-elect Biden has a long road ahead of him. He must mend the political, social, and economic damages of the Trump Administration, and implement his various domestic policy plans. As for foreign policy, Joe Biden must reestablish American diplomacy, which will require a revitalized immigration plan. For far too long, the United States has benefitted off the backs of immigrants without acknowledging their importance — a new immigration policy is thus long overdue. It is time to accept a larger amount of refugees, specifically from regions with conflict that have been exacerbated by American involvement.

The United States has retrogressed in its treatment of refugees over the past several Presidential Administrations, with the Trump Presidency hitting a record-low of refugee resettlement numbers at 11,814 refugees in fiscal year 2020.

Accepting refugees is not simply humanitarian aid, it represents the willingness of a nation to partake in global diplomacy. This responsibility lies with the President. Historically, American refugee policy has evolved in tandem with international law. After signing the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, the United States passed the 1980 Refugee Act and amended the existent Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. This brought several changes to the American refugee policy. The definition of refugee in American national law became aligned with international law, the refugee admission ceiling as determined by the President was raised, and refugee resettlement programs were established under national agencies. At the time, the United States accepted and resettled the highest number of refugees compared to other nations. Unfortunately, this has not continued into the modern era.

Today, the United States timidly stands in the shadows as multiple refugee crises emerge and proliferate. Most notably is American inaction with the Syrian refugee crisis. Although it is one of the most severe humanitarian issues of the 21st century, the Syrian Civil War and the resultant displacement of Syrian civilians has not been alleviated by the United States. Under the Obama Administration, refugee admissions were at an all-time high after 9/11 in 2016 with 84,988 refugee admissions. Yet, also in 2016, the United States accepted and resettled only 2,647, despite the forced displacement of 4.5 million Syrians.

The feeble attempts at assisting refugees is not unique to America, rather, there is a clear global disparity in the distribution of refugees. The current international context surrounding refugees displays an uneven distribution, with 80% of the world’s refugees living in developing nations. The only developed nation in the top 10 refugee hosting countries is Germany, which does not reflect well on the global standing of the United States. As a nation, America considers itself to be a model democracy predicated on the ideals of equality, justice, and liberty; however, refugees and asylum-seekers are not an immigration priority.

Photo by William Alatriste

Immigration reform on refugee policy is more than just a political issue, it also has ethical considerations. Sarah Song, a professor of law at UC Berkeley, explains in her book Immigration and Democracy that the United States has a “remedial responsibility” to “assist refugees… to step in when the refugee’s home state is unable or unwilling to secure her basic rights.” The idea of such “remedial responsibility” works in tandem with the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine that was enshrined in 2009 by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as an integral part of state sovereignty. Essentially, as a sovereign and independent state, the United States must acknowledge its responsibility to uphold human rights and protect those living under its jurisdiction. With this, it is important to recognize that through its involvement in global politics and other nations, the United States has expanded its sphere of influence to not only include the persons within its borders, but also those outside of it.

As a result, the Biden immigration policy must prioritize openness and acceptance in order to repair the problems that have risen from excessive American intrusion.

People in other countries have been directly and indirectly influenced by the United States social and political ties that require the United States to fulfill its responsibility to protect. Since the United States has a moral affinity to nations where it has either economically, politically, or militarily intervened, the United States is responsible for assisting those who seek refuge due to the enshrinement and recognition of human rights duties. Not only that, but the unequal distribution of refugees between developing and developed nations only further entrenches the global development gap, and harms any chances at a stabilized world economy.

Thus, by accepting refugees or asylum-seekers, the United States will fulfill its role as a developed nation in order to better the status of the economy and international community, while also making up for its past transgressions and interventions which may have caused such problems.

It has been proven that refugees who resettle in America have become important contributors to the workforce, and tend to arrive with higher education levels and intentions to become market citizens. In other words, not only does it make sense from a moral standing to accept more refugees, but it positively impacts the American economy.

In short, the Biden Administration must acknowledge the responsibility it holds to reform immigration in response to the severe lack in past Administrations’ actions, and an important step is a more generous refugee policy. American ideals are not reflected in current legislation and policy actions, so we must hold the Biden Administration accountable to ensure that the America we envision is the America that exists.

About the Author

Pelin Ensari is a Political Science undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley with a concentration on International Relations, and a Middle East focus.

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The Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative (BIMI) is a partnership of migration experts at UC Berkeley who investigate the social, political, legal and economic dynamics of migration globally as well as locally. We strive to advance thoughtful and substantive conversations on migration that leverage the university’s cutting-edge scholarship and its public mission to educate current and future generations. We embrace new data- gathering technologies as well as embedded, on-the-ground fieldwork, drawing from the interdisciplinary expertise of faculty, students and the communities with which we engage. Bringing together research, training and public engagement, BIMI aspires to inform, educate and transform knowledge to improve the well-being of immigrants and the communities they live in.

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Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative (BIMI)

Migration research group of renowned faculty, researchers & students at UC Berkeley and beyond.

Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative (BIMI)

Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative (BIMI) is a partnership of faculty, researchers & students dedicated to migration research and policy analysis. BIMI delivers data-driven policy reports that seek to inform non-academic communities of inequities among immigrants.

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Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative (BIMI)

Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative (BIMI) is a partnership of faculty, researchers & students dedicated to migration research and policy analysis. BIMI delivers data-driven policy reports that seek to inform non-academic communities of inequities among immigrants.

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