The Biden administration on Friday afternoon said it will raise the refugee cap by mid-May, a move that comes after swift backlash over an earlier announcement that it would keep in place the current historically low cap set by former President Donald Trump.
Earlier on Friday, President Joe Biden signed an emergency presidential determination that would leave the limit of 15,000 refugees set for this fiscal year by his predecessor. The announcement was met with immediate blowback from Democrats on Capitol Hill, immigrant advocates and refugee resettlement groups who regarded the news as a broken promise from the president, who has repeatedly vowed to welcome immigrants and refugees.
Biden pledged in February to raise the limit of 15,000 refugees for this year and to increase the annual refugee admissions cap to 125,000 for the next fiscal year. Days later, the State Department notified Congress that it planned to expand the refugee cap for this current fiscal year to allow up to 62,500 refugees to resettle in the United States.
But White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday afternoon said that “given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely.” Instead, she said Biden is expected to set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15.
Immigrant advocates and refugee resettlement agencies expressed disappointment at the Biden administration’s announcement earlier on Friday — and argued that despite Trump’s work to dismantle the U.S. refugee admissions program, there was still room to welcome more refugees. There are currently about 35,000 refugees already approved and ready to resettle in the United States.
"[I]t is deeply disappointing that the administration has elected to leave in place the shameful, record-low admissions cap of its predecessor," said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a faith-based nonprofit that works directly with refugees resettled in the U.S. "While it is true the Trump administration left the resettlement infrastructure in tatters, we feel confident and able to serve far more families than this order accounts for."
In the signed determination, Biden did, however, eliminate Trump-era restrictions on which refugees qualify under the cap and speed up admissions. It changes the regional allocation to allow for more refugees from regions like Africa that were largely banned by the Trump administration. The revised allocations for this fiscal year are 7,000 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 Near East and South Asia and an extra 1,000 not allocated.
Vignarajah said that part of the determination was welcome, as it revises policy that "disproportionately and discriminately impacted refugees from African and Muslim-majority nations."
Still, Biden faced heavy criticism from lawmakers, advocates, families of refugees and other supporters for not following through on his promise — and later, for sowing confusion on what’s happening with the cap. In Biden’s signed memo keeping in place the 15,000 refugee cap, he said it "remains justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest." He added that if that number is met before the end of the fiscal year, he’d potentially increase admissions "as appropriate."
"This is incredibly disappointing. The United States is the most powerful nation in the world and we can’t do better?" Ali Noorani, president and CEO of advocacy group National Immigration Forum, said on the initial news. "Refugee resettlement has nothing to do with what is happening at the border. There exists a national network of organizations, churches and state offices who have decades of experience resettling refugees."
Psaki on Friday acknowledged in the press briefing that the increased number of migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border played a factor in the president’s decision against following through on his pledge to raise the cap.
Biden, for his part, has repeatedly touted the importance of the United States’ moral leadership on refugee issues and how the U.S. has historically "pushed other nations to open wide their doors as well." But a report released by the humanitarian aid group International Rescue Committee this week found that Biden is on track to admit fewer refugees than any president in U.S. history.
Midway through fiscal 2021, only 2,050 refugees have been admitted to the U.S., according to the analysis, which was first reported by The Washington Post.