Biden Pedals Back Low Refugee Cap After Backlash

After initially saying Trump's limit would stay, an increase was announced but delayed until May. Hundreds of refugees set to resettle in the U.S. are left in limbo.

President Joe Biden will announce an increase in refugee admissions next month, the White House said Friday, a reversal from a statement hours earlier that he would leave in place the historically low cap set by President Donald Trump.

The White House faced heavy criticism for leaving Trump’s refugee target ― only 15,000 people to be admitted this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30 ― in place. Democrats, refugee groups and immigration advocates said the decision was misguided and wholly unnecessary. They also speculated it might be political ― meant to stymie criticism from the right that Biden was allowing in too many asylum-seekers at the border even though refugee admissions are separate from border matters.

Biden pledged in February that he would raise the cap to 62,500 refugees for this fiscal year and 125,000 for the next, but he never formally signed the directive — throwing the plans of hundreds of refugees into limbo.

His new cap has not yet been determined but is unlikely to be as high as 62,500 for the year.

“We expect the President to set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a Friday afternoon statement.

Psaki said that the administration determined it was unlikely to meet that number “given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement.”

The ORR is the office of the Department of Health and Human Services that handles refugees and unaccompanied minors who are apprehended at the border. But experts and refugee groups argued that ORR can handle both and that there’s no need to thwart one vulnerable population in favor of another.

“The harm caused by the delay cannot be overstated — thousands of refugees who were ready for travel to the United States last month have seen their medical and security checks start to expire,” Meredith Owen, director of policy and advocacy for the refugee resettlement group Church World Service, said in a statement. She added, “The United States can and should be resettling refugees — and welcoming asylum seekers and unaccompanied children — as it seeks to retake the mantle of moral leadership around the world.”

Biden’s delay in moving on refugees has already caused significant pain. Hundreds of refugees who had been approved to resettle in the U.S. have had to cancel flights. By the beginning of April, the Biden administration had resettled only 2,050 refugees for the fiscal year.

The Biden administration said it was taking steps to speed up and improve resettlement. One is to adjust the allocations set by Trump ― which prioritized Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military and Christians facing religious persecution ― and would provide more slots for refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Central America. But Trump’s ban on refugees from several Muslim-majority countries will remain.

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, and 1,500 from the Near East and South Asia. There is also a reserve of about 1,000 slots to be used as needed.

Families affected by the delay previously told HuffPost that they spent weeks furnishing their homes and preparing for the arrivals of their loved ones. Thousands of miles away, refugees made their own preparations and sold off many of their belongings and homes in preparation for their flights. Many refugees were worried that their security and health checks needed to board their flights were expiring.

Guests at the America Welcomes Event with a Statue of Liberty replica shows solidarity with immigrants and refugees at Union Station on May 16, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
Guests at the America Welcomes Event with a Statue of Liberty replica shows solidarity with immigrants and refugees at Union Station on May 16, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
Tasos Katopodis via Getty Images

For months, Democratic lawmakers, resettlement agencies and activists have called on Biden to fulfill his promise. Earlier on Friday, several House Democrats wrote a letter to the president, urging him to officially raise the refugee cap that has trapped families in limbo.

The White House had previously said that Biden remained committed to the issue but hasn’t given any further explanation for the delay on signing a directive increasing the cap on refugees.

People close to the White House speculated that the president was concerned about political optics as he dealt with the surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Migrants at the border seeking asylum are processed in an entirely separate system than refugees fleeing persecution overseas.

“The asylum process at the southern border and the refugee process are completely separate immigration systems,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement after the initial announcement. “Conflating the two constitutes caving to the politics of fear.”

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