The decision was a blow to refugee advocates who had wanted US President Joe Biden to move swiftly to reverse the policies of his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, who had set the 15,000 cap as a way to limit immigration.

An unidentified migrant from Honduras waits for a northern bound train during his journey toward the US-Mexico border on the outskirts of Mexico City, on May 12, 2012
An unidentified migrant from Honduras waits for a northern bound train during his journey toward the US-Mexico border on the outskirts of Mexico City, on May 12, 2012 (AP)

US President Joe Biden has signed an emergency determination that officials said would speed refugee admissions to the US, but he did not immediately lift his predecessor's historically low cap of 15,000 refugees for this year.

Under an emergency presidential determination signed by Biden, the United States will offer refugee status to a wider part of the world than had been allowed by Trump, a senior administration official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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.

Since the fiscal year began on October 1, just over 2,000 refugees have been resettled in the US. A senior administration official said Biden's new allocations, formalised in an emergency presidential determination, could result in speedier admissions of already screened and vetted refugees in a manner of days.

Refugee resettlement agencies applauded the move to speed admissions and provide more slots but were disheartened that Biden is for now keeping the cap set by Trump.

READ MORE: Biden set to accept fewer refugees than any US president

Delayed action

“It sends an important message to make it higher and now Biden will still be presiding over and has essentially put his stamp of approval on the lowest refugee admissions cap in history at time of global crisis," said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, a Maryland-based Jewish nonprofit that is one of nine agencies that resettles refugees in the US.

Biden presented a plan to Congress two months ago to raise the ceiling on admissions to 62,500 and to eliminate restrictions imposed by Trump that have disqualified a significant number of refugees, including those fleeing war.

But Biden has not issued a presidential determination since his administration notified Congress, as required by law.

The action 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.

The Biden administration has given no explanation as to why the president has kept the refugee admissions cap.

Biden has pledged to raise the refugee cap for the next fiscal year to 125,000 and signalled he would try to make a “down payment” on that this year, but acknowledged it wouldn't be easy.

“It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do,” Biden said in February at the State Department.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday that the delay in Biden acting was because “it took us some time to see and evaluate how ineffective, or how trashed in some ways the refugee processing system had become, and so we had to rebuild some of those muscles and put it back in place.”

Officials also cited the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic but said the expanding vaccination and testing campaigns are making it easier to process new refugee admissions.

Another concern has been the record pace of unaccompanied migrants crossing the US-Mexico border, which has drawn in many of the resources that would go to vetting, processing and resettling refugees in the US.

“It is a factor," said Psaki, noting that the Office of Refugee Resettlement "does management and has personnel working on both issues and so we have to ensure that there is capacity and ability to manage both.”

READ MORE: US faces biggest migrant surge in two decades – Homeland Security

Slots under new allocation

Under Biden's new allocation, about 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, 1,500 from the Near East and South Asia and a reserve of about 1,000 slots to 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 for people fleeing religious persecution, Iraqis who have assisted US forces there, and people from Central America’s Northern Triangle.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies