U.S. President Joe Biden said he plans to announce a higher refugee cap for this year, following a swift backlash from allies over a decision to keep the historically low ceiling set by his predecessor.
Biden on Friday signed an order intended to accelerate processing of refugees while keeping former President Donald Trump’s 15,000-person cap in place. That backtracked on the administration’s plan to accept many more refugees this year. Top Democrats condemned the move, with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin calling the decision “unacceptable.”
“We’re going to increase the number,” Biden told reporters on Saturday about the refugee cap, as he departed a Delaware golf club.
He suggested work on the refugee issue had been held up by “the crisis that ended up on the border with young people.” The Biden administration has at times pushed back against describing conditions on the U.S.-Mexico border, and the recent influx of young migrants, as a “crisis.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement on Friday that Biden’s order had been “the subject of some confusion,” and that the president would follow through on welcoming more refugees to the U.S.
“The President was urged to take immediate action to reverse the Trump policy that banned refugees from many key regions, to enable flights from those regions to begin within days; today’s order did that,” Psaki said. “With that done, we expect the President to set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15.”
Biden’s order reallocated slots to make them more readily available to people living in Africa and the Middle East. Limits on those areas set by Trump slowed refugee admissions, according to a senior administration official who previewed the order.
Human-rights groups and Democratic lawmakers quickly condemned the move and called on Biden to fulfill a pledge to raise the cap to 62,500 for the second half of the fiscal year, or April 1 through Sept. 30. The official said the U.S. couldn’t immediately reach that target due to the lack of infrastructure left behind by Trump to process refugees, and the coronavirus pandemic.
“Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely,” Psaki said.
Just 2,050 refugees have been admitted to the U.S. since the fiscal year began on Oct. 1, the lowest level on record in the modern era, according to an analysis from the International Rescue Committee. The cap Trump set during his final year was the lowest since Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980, as he sought to curb various types of legal and illegal immigration.
Biden’s reversal shows the pressure he’s facing over how quickly to move moving forward on his promise to create a more humane and welcoming immigration system, while contending with a political crisis surrounding the influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Republicans blame Biden’s rhetoric and policies for the migration spike, a claim the White House has denied. Trump and his GOP allies supported a small refugee cap because they said asylum requests at the southern border could overwhelm U.S. immigration authorities, even though the two systems are run separately.
“This reflects Team Biden’s awareness that the border flood will cause record midterm losses *if* GOP keeps issue front & center,” Stephen Miller, a former senior adviser to Trump who shaped his hard-line immigration policies, said on Twitter of Biden’s initial decision to keep the former president’s cap.
Biden’s earlier posture frustrated members of his own party who’ve demanded he deliver on his promises. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the move was “utterly unacceptable.”
“Upholding the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump admin, incl the historically low + plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong,” the New York Democrat said in a tweet.
Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration should have raised Trump’s cap.
He said in a statement directed at Biden that the decision “undermines your declared purpose to reverse your predecessor’s refugee policies and to rebuild the Refugee Admissions Program to a target of 125,000 people in FY22, and threatens U.S. leadership on forced migration.”
Under Biden’s reallocation, 7,000 spots would be reserved for refugees from Africa, 3,000 from Latin America, 1,500 from the Near East and South Asia, 1,500 for Europe and Central Asia, 1,000 from East Asia and 1,000 would be kept in reserve.
The delay in revising the allocation, however, resulted in the flights of more than 700 refugees being canceled this year because they didn’t fit into Trump’s categories, according to Menendez.
The U.S. in March saw the highest number of apprehensions at the Mexican border in almost two decades, including a record number of children and teens traveling alone.
The situation at the Mexican border, which involves migrants seeking asylum upon arrival, isn’t directly related to the refugee program, under which people apply overseas to resettle in the U.S. and face a lengthy vetting process before they’re admitted.
But Psaki said Friday that the hold-up was in part due to capacity issues at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which handles both refugees admissions and sheltering children and teen migrants traveling alone.
“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,” Psaki said during her daily briefing with reporters.
In February, just days after his inauguration, Biden said he would raise the refugee cap for next fiscal year to 125,000 and would make a “down payment” by accepting more refugees this year as well. But the president also said it would be difficult to do so.
“It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do,” he said during a speech at the State Department.
Days later, the State Department notified Congress that the Biden administration intended to raise the fiscal year 2021 cap to 62,500. The Feb. 12 report said such a cap “is justified by grave humanitarian concerns and is in the national interest. The 2021 fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
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