Biden signals a major change of emphasis with State Department visit

Raising the number of people who can be admitted to the U.S. isn’t just a matter of naming a number: During the Trump years, the institutions and processes for vetting and resettling people were gutted, and will have to be rebuilt. The number of resettlement offices dropped by a third over the past four years, for instance.

Biden is also expected to move away from a Trump-era system of categorizing which refugees are eligible for admission, and instead return to a United Nations referral system. 

But whatever specifics Biden announces about his policies during the visit, the visit itself is a significant statement of priorities, and a boost to a beleaguered agency and its employees. According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, Biden is “largely focused on his desire to thank the men and women who are us—who are Foreign Service officers, civil servants, who are the heart and soul of that institution and, frankly, our government.”

Under Trump, the State Department was sidelined and under constant threat—literal personal threat, in the case of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch—hemorrhaging experienced diplomats and attracting many fewer applicants to be foreign service officers. According to an inspector general’s report in 2020, “staffing gaps, frequent turnover, poor leadership, and inexperienced and undertrained staff frequently contribute to the Department’s other management challenges.” Biden is clearly making it a priority to change that, but as with so many things in government, rebuilding is going to be more difficult and time-consuming than burning it all down was.

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