Building the invisible wall: Why immigrating to the U.S. as a refugee is more difficult now than ever

About the Author: Brandon Samples is a first year law student at American University- Washington College of Law. Brandon graduated from University of South Carolina and hopes to work with international trade or immigration policy after graduating law school. 


The United States is a nation of immigrants, and historically has annually admitted large numbers of refugee seekers. These applicants apply from outside the United States and wait abroad while their applications are adjudicated. Over the past decade, and especially since 2017, the wait times for processing refugee applications has increasingly slowed and new regulations and limitations to an already strained system have made achieving refugee status to enter the United States extremely difficult. Policies such as drastically reducing the number of admitted refugees and extreme vetting of refugee applications has made legal immigration into the United States under this system virtually impossible.

Until 2018, the United States was the largest recipient of refugees in the world, but now comes second to Canada with 23,000 refugees admitted in 2018 compared to Canada’s 28,000.[1] The President has the power to set the number of refugees admitted to the United States annually, and since the beginning of the Donald Trump administration in 2017 this number has been reduced drastically.[2] In 2016, the cap of admitted refugees was 110,000 while the current proposed cap for 2021 refugee admissions is just 15,000.[3] In addition, structural changes to the refugee system have caused longer waits for applications to be processed. For example, as of April 2019 at least 51 of 325 refugee resettlement centers have been closed due to the aforementioned decreases in admitted refugees and resulting low funding.[4] U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has also reassigned many refugee officers to the Asylum Division in an attempt to address a backlog in asylum applications, consequently resulting in a delay in adjudication of refugee applications.[5]

The Trump administration has also expanded the use of a form of extreme vetting for some refugees applying to enter the United States. This vetting was originally only applicable to men from particular countries with a heightened security risk as determined by the Security Advisory Opinions list (SAO), and involves background checks on refugee applicants and any points of contact they may have in the United States.[6] Adjudicating officers then have discretion to deny a refugee application based on a “reason to believe” that the applicant seeks to enter the U.S. to commit any unlawful activity, and allows “discretionary denial” based on speculative concerns rather than any expressly articulated security rationale.[7] The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) “zero tolerance” background checks have flagged refugee applicants unnecessarily simply because of possible down-the-line affiliations with anyone who raises a certain level of security concern, which allows for even more discretionary denials of refugee applicants, including those of Iraqi applicants that assisted the United States in battle.[8] The Trump administration has expanded the use of these FBI checks to include anyone attempting to enter as a refugee from an SAO country between the ages of fourteen to fifty, while also setting quotas on how many of these intensive checks can be performed by the FBI monthly, causing more slowdowns in application processing.[9]

The United States’ role as a place of refuge for those fleeing dangerous circumstances has been reduced during the last four years due to such drastic policy changes, and even under a new presidential administration these policies could be difficult to reverse. President-elect Joseph Biden has pledged to change some of the recent policies on refugee and asylum law when he enters office, including setting the refugee limit to 125,000 annually after he enters office next year, but it remains to be seen how or if these possible changes could improve a system in need of major reform.[10],[11]


[1] Sarah Pierce & Jessica Bolter, Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System 64 (2020),

[2] Deborah Amos, Biden Plans to Reopen America to Refugees After Trump Slashed Admissions, NPR, (Nov. 11, 2020),

[3] Id.

[4] Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System at 67.

[5] Id.

[6] Debunking “Extreme Vetting”: Recommendations to Build Back the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program 11, 21 (2020),

[7] Id. at 9.

[8] Yeganeh Torbati, Exclusive: Pentagon raises alarm about sharp drop in Iraqi refugees coming to U.S., Reuters (Aug. 20, 2018),

[9] Debunking “Extreme Vetting”: Recommendations to Build Back the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program 11, 21 (2020),

[10] Alan Gomez & Daniel Gonzalez, Biden might need years to reverse Trump’s immigration policies on DACA, asylum, family separation, ICE raids, private detention and more, USA Today (Nov. 12, 2020),

[11] Deborah Amos, Biden Plans to Reopen America to Refugees After Trump Slashed Admissions, NPR, (Nov. 11, 2020),

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