US President Joe Biden formally reversed himself just two weeks after his administration announced it would keep the cap at the 15,000 level set by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump,

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a visit at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Virginia, US on May 3, 2021
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a visit at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Virginia, US on May 3, 2021 (Reuters)

President Joe Biden announced, after coming under fierce criticism, that he was raising the maximum number of refugees allowed into the United States this year to 62,500 – up from the 15,000 cap imposed by his predecessor Donald Trump.

The change follows backlash from allies over Biden's earlier decision to keep the Trump-era limits – a politically costly moment of confusion that stood out in a White House notable for its iron discipline in its first three months.

"This erases the historically low number set by the previous administration of 15,000, which did not reflect America's values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees," Biden said in a statement on Monday.

"The new admissions cap will also reinforce efforts that are already underway to expand the United States' capacity to admit refugees, so that we can reach the goal of 125,000 refugee admissions that I intend to set for the coming fiscal year."

The program is only for refugees selected by US security and intelligence agencies from United Nations camps around the world.

The course correction was quickly welcomed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is controlled by Biden's Democratic party.

"I welcome the Biden administration's announcement that it will increase the number of refugees allowed to be resettled in the United States. This is an important step in continuing our proud, bipartisan tradition of providing refugees protection through resettlement," the committee chairman, Senator Bob Menendez, tweeted.

'Lives are at stake'

The American Civil Liberties Union, a powerful advocacy group, also voiced approval, saying that the country's "reputation" was at stake.

"We are pleased to see President Biden has abandoned the Trump administration’s abysmal refugee goal and recommitted to prioritizing helping people who are fleeing persecution around the globe," ACLU representative Manar Waheed said.

"We recognize that the goal may not be easy and it requires rebuilding a system that was decimated by the Trump administration, but candidate Biden promised," Waheed said. "He must fulfill that promise, lives are at stake."

READ MORE: After criticism, Biden says he will raise US cap on refugee admissions

Change in policy

Trump steadily slashed the size of the refugee programme during his term in office, and Biden officials say the cuts have made quickly raising admissions more difficult.

But the refugee program is distinct from the asylum system for migrants. Refugees come from all over the world, many fleeing conflict. They undergo extensive vetting while still overseas to be cleared for entry to the United States, unlike migrants who arrive at a US border and then request asylum.

The allocations for the increased cap matched an earlier plan Biden sent to Congress, according to a memo signed by Biden. The memo said there would be 22,000 spots for refugees from Africa, 6,000 from East Asia, 4,000 from Europe and Central Asia, 5,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean, and 13,000 from South Asia. Another 12,500 unallocated spots will also be available.

Biden said it was doubtful the United States would be able to welcome a total of 62,500 refugees by the end of the current fiscal year on September 30, or reach a goal of 125,000 admissions next year.

"The sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year. We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years. It will take some time, but that work is already under way," he said.

READ MORE: Biden accelerates refugee admissions but stops short of lifting Trump cap

Seeking party unity after criticism

Last month, the White House said it needed more time to "rebuild" the post-Trump refugee program and would therefore keep the cap at 15,000 for the year.

After a top Democrat and refugee aid groups slammed Biden's target as "appallingly low" and "deeply disappointing," the White House issued a statement hours later saying the low number was only provisional.

In an other shift from Trump's policies, Biden announced in April that quotas were being expanded for refugees from Central America, the Middle East and Africa, while also opening the doors to three mostly Muslim countries – Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

With Monday's announcement, the White House will hope to have calmed the political waters among Democrats just when it needs party unity to push forward on huge proposed social and infrastructure spending plans in an almost evenly divided Congress.

"We are amid the largest global refugee crisis in history, and after four years of slashing admittances to the lowest point on record, we need to return to our leadership position," another Democratic senator, Tim Kaine, said.

"I am heartened by today's announcement that moved toward upholding our values of accepting refugees."

Trump set the 15,000 cap nearly a month before the November 2020 presidential election, which he lost.

READ MORE: Biden responsible for breaking his own promise over refugee numbers

Under his predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama, with whom Biden served as vice president, an average of 100,000 people were welcomed into the United States each year.

"It is in our DNA as a nation to open our door to those seeking refuge," said US secretary of state Antony Blinken in response to Biden's announcement.

"It remains in our national interest to treat individuals applying for these programs fairly and with dignity and respect."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies