A New Era for Refugee Resettlement

A day of firsts: five key takeaways from Biden's historic inauguration | Biden  inauguration | The Guardian
Joe Biden fist-bumps Kamala Harris after she took the oath of office.
Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images 

As America welcomes its new president with the inauguration of President Joe Biden earlier this year, we want to take a moment to discuss what a new presidential administration means for refugee resettlement.  

The Biden administration and refugee resettlement 

The past four years have seen resettlement in Tennessee reduced to a mere fraction of what it previously was. The ceiling set each year to determine how many refugees would be granted resettlement has been significantly lower than during every previous administration. 

The Biden administration has already indicated that it will seek to restore the status of the United States as a global humanitarian leader by defending the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. On a statement issued on World Refugee Day in 2020, Biden announced his intent to increase the refugee admissions cap to 125,000 to be “commensurate with our responsibility, our values, and the unprecedented global need.” This cap of 125,000 refugees is expected to be set in 2022. Currently, President Biden’s proposal to revise the 2021 cap of 15,000 to 62,500 arrivals is awaiting review from Congress.  

On February 4, Biden signed the Executive Order on Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration, which sets forth guidelines for rebuilding our nation’s decimated refugee resettlement program. The Order calls for increased efficacy, integrity, security, and transparency from the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP); calls for a plan to address processing backlogs and pursue security vetting processes that are effective, fair, and efficient; and formally revokes executive actions that defied the spirit of the 1980 Refugee Act with restrictions that undermined the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. 

This higher ceiling for refugee resettlement and the Executive Order reflects the United States’ historical commitment to offer refuge to individuals fleeing persecution and American values of opportunity, dignity, liberty, and welcoming. 

A year of building  

This next year will be a year of rebuilding in Tennessee. We will not likely see an immediate influx of refugees in Tennessee as a result of Biden’s actions. The process for vetting refugees can take up to 18 months, and travel has been slowed by safety procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic. We can prepare now, however, for eventual increases in arrivals by building relationships and resettlement capacity. The Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies have not only harmed the economic, social, and national security benefits of a once robust refugee resettlement program. It has also reduced the capacity of resettlement agencies to help refugees find jobs, navigate healthcare and school systems, and otherwise integrate into their new communities. 

One important measure for a successful refugee resettlement program is the strength of its community relationships. Building capacity for resettlement cannot happen without the community resources, businesses, and residents that create stronger opportunities for integration. Relationships with employers will bolster Tennessee’s economy. Relationships with local and state government officials will ensure that all Tennesseans are lifted up by values of welcoming and home. Relationships with community members like you make Tennessee a state of neighbors. Reach out to a resettlement agency near you to attend quarterly Community Consultations where you can learn more about resettlement and capacity building in your area. 

Black History Month

Black History Month is a time for us to celebrate the achievements and history of those of African heritage. It is a time for us to honor their contributions to the vibrant tapestry of American art, knowledge, culture, and society. It is a time for us to remember the struggle for freedom, equality, and justice. As we celebrate, honor, and remember, we must acknowledge the diversity of backgrounds of blackness in America – from those born in American to refugees and immigrants who have found home in America.  

This year’s theme for Black History Month is The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity. The theme invites us to reflect on both nuclear families and the broader Black community. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History says of the Black family that “Not only are individual black families diasporic, but Africa and the diaspora itself have been long portrayed as the black family at large.”  

Reflections on the representation, identity, and diversity of the Black family are incomplete without acknowledging the history of forced displacement from their homes and the separation of families. The Africa diaspora has roots in the Atlantic slave trade, which displaced individuals, families, and entire communities. This theme is particularly relevant to immigrants and refugees, many for whom this history is a lived and present reality. 

The tragedy of African families being torn apart is not just a matter for the history books. Today, families in Africa are separated as they flee violence, torture, and genocide. We play a part in the health, safety, and future of Black families by examining national immigration laws and the conditions of refugee resettlement to ensure there are no unnecessary barriers to reuniting families. Celebrating Black History means striving for future in which families are never again torn apart. 

Black History Month is about more than celebrating, honoring, and remembering. It is a time to ask ourselves how far we still have to go until every family is reunited and has the opportunity to thrive in safety and freedom.  

How to Get Involved

With so much attention on global migration crises, refugee serving organizations have experienced an uptick in interest from potential volunteers and donors. Since the attacks in Paris we at TOR have heard from people across the state asking how they can help. A few of us who work with and for refugees put this short list of suggestions together:

1) Volunteer

Resettlement and refugee service agencies are always looking for innovative ways to best serve their clients. We all have skills, from graphic design to searching through craigslist, that are invaluable to refugee integration. If you want to see how your skill or passion fits in with an organization, email an agency to see how you can be plugged in. Additionally, dedicated volunteers are always in high demand to teach ESL or befriend a newly arrived family.

2) Support existing programs

Dig through agencies’ websites to find a need that speaks to you. Maybe you’ll choose to donate welcome packages for newly arrived refugee families, or you’ll become a resume tutor and help a highly educated refugee avoid under-employment.

3) Use your voice

Tennessee legislators listen to their constituents; your voice matters. Do two things: follow the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) to stay up to date on proposed legislation and call or email your representatives today!

4) Leverage your networks

Encourage your musician friends to host a fundraising concert, or suggest that your faith group hold a coat drive. Choose to hold your next event at one of the many outstanding New American-owned restaurants in town. Be sure to share facts from reputable sources like the Tennessee Office for Refugees and Migration Policy Institute along the way.

5) Be a Tennessean

We are the volunteer state after all. We pull together in times of crisis and meet each other’s needs.  Nashville has been called the nation’s friendliest city, and we’ve openly welcomed refugees for decades.  Now is the time to uphold these values.


Please visit Meet Our Partners page to connect with a refugee serving agency. This list is not exhaustive. There are many nonprofits that work tirelessly to serve refugees. Get connected with one in your community and see how you can fit in.