President Joe Biden plans to lift his predecessor’s historically low cap on refugees by next month, after initially moving only to expand the eligibility criteria for resettlements and getting swift blowback from allies in return.
US President Joe Biden has said he will raise the cap on the number of refugees admitted this year to the United States, a day after he drew criticism from Democratic lawmakers for agreeing to keep the historically low figure in place.
Biden signed an order on Friday extending a 15,000 refugee admissions cap issued by his predecessor Donald Trump through the end of September. In signing the order, Biden shelved a plan announced in February to increase the cap to 62,500.
Biden told reporters in Delaware on Saturday after playing golf that he would go beyond the 15,000 limit.
"We are going to increase the number. Problem was the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up at the border with young people. We couldn’t do two things at once, so now we are going to raise the number," he said.
With Biden under criticism from lawmakers and refugee advocacy groups, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday he planned to "set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15."
Biden's order to limit admissions to 15,000 was a blow to advocacy groups that wanted the Democratic president to move swiftly to reverse the refugee policies of the Republican Trump, who had set the figure as a way to limit immigration.
The program for admitting refugees is distinct from the asylum system for migrants. Refugees must be vetted while still overseas and cleared for entry to the United States, unlike migrants who arrive at a US border and then request asylum.
Biden's cautious approach appears to have been tied to concerns over the optics of admitting more refugees at a time of rising numbers of migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border in recent months, and to not wanting to look "too open" or "soft," another US official with knowledge of the matter told Reuters on Friday.
Psaki said on Friday Biden's "initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely...given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited."
Republicans have blamed Biden for the situation at the border, faulting his moves to reverse other Trump-era hardline immigration policies.
Critics from both sides
The new allocations provide more slots for refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Central America and lift Trump's restrictions on resettlements from Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Critics from both sides of the political spectrum had accused the president of bowing to political pressure that has been mounting over the record pace of unaccompanied migrants crossing the US-Mexico border. Stephen Miller, a key architect of Trump’s immigration policies, tweeted that keeping Trump's cap “reflects Team Biden’s awareness that the border flood will cause record midterm losses.”
Thoughts on this announcement:— Stephen Miller (@StephenM) April 16, 2021
1. This reflects Team Biden’s awareness that the border flood will cause record midterm losses *if* GOP keeps issue front & center
2. Staggering # being released at border DWARF # saved by not raising cap
3. Refugee cap should be reduced to ZERO* https://t.co/RyMEcMKQms
The White House indicated the border situation was partly why Biden had not acted before now, even though migrants at the border do not go through the same vetting process as refugees.
“It is a factor,” said Psaki, noting that the Office of Refugee Resettlement “has personnel working on both issues and so we have to ensure that there is capacity and ability to manage both.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he didn't buy that.
“This cruel policy is no more acceptable now than it was during the Trump administration,” Blumenthal said. “To be clear: the asylum process at the southern border and the refugee process are completely separate immigration systems. Conflating the two constitutes caving to the politics of fear.”
Since the fiscal year began last October 1, just over 2,000 refugees have been resettled in the US.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken notified Congress on February 12 of a plan to raise the ceiling on admissions to 62,500, but no presidential determination followed.
The law does not require congressional approval and past presidents have issued such presidential determinations that set the cap on refugee admissions shortly after the notification to Congress.
'Leadership is sorely needed'
Senator Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Biden in a letter on Friday that his inaction “undermines your declared purpose to reverse your predecessor’s refugee policies.”
Menendez said it also makes it unlikely that the program can hit its target next budget year of 125,000, which Biden has pledged to do.
Refugee resettlement agencies said it was important that admissions go higher even if it's not possible to meet the target to send a message that America will be a leader again in offering safe haven to the world's oppressed.
Some 35,000 refugees have been cleared to go to the United States, and 100,000 remain in the pipeline and their lives remain in limbo, said David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.
“This leadership is sorely needed,” he said.
Allocation of refugee slots
Under Biden's new allocation, 7,000 slots are reserved for refugees from Africa, 1,000 from East Asia, 1,500 from Europe and Central Asia, 3,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean and 1,500 from the Near East and South Asia.
A reserve of about 1,000 slots can be used as needed.
The State Department, which coordinates flights with resettlement agencies, booked 715 refugees to come to the United States with the anticipation that Biden would have acted by March, but those flights were canceled since the refugees were not eligible under Trump’s rules, according to resettlement agencies.
Most of the refugees are from Africa and fleeing armed conflict or political persecution.
Trump limited most spots to people fleeing religious persecution, Iraqis who have assisted US forces there, and people from Central America’s Northern Triangle.