President Joe Biden on Friday walked back from an earlier pledge to increase refugee admissions to the United States and will keep in place a Trump administration cap of 15,000 for this year – for now.
The reversal, which drew the ire of his fellow Democrats, comes as the Biden administration confronts a surge of migrants trying to cross the US-Mexico border and wrestles with a thicket of bureaucratic gaps in the US’s resettlement program left over by the Trump administration.
The Democratic criticism forced the White House to clarify the president’s actions later on Friday, with press secretary Jen Psaki saying the president will revisit the question of raising the cap with an eye toward setting a “final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15”.
While the new US administration is not immediately increasing the number of refugees it will accept, an executive order signed by Biden on Friday lifts restrictions the prior Trump administration had placed on where refugees can come from as part of a rebuilding effort, White House National Security Advice Jake Sullivan said.
America needs to rebuild our refugee resettlement program. We will use all 15,000 slots under the new Determination and work with Congress on increasing admissions and building back to the numbers to which we’ve committed.
— Jake Sullivan (@JakeSullivan46) April 16, 2021
The order will provide for entry to the US of more refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Central America and lift Trump’s restrictions on resettlements from Somalia, Syria and Yemen, senior administration officials told US news outlets.
The International Rescue Committee on Friday expressed disappointment in the Biden administration’s decision, saying in a statement it was a “disturbing and unjustified retreat” from the administration’s previously stated goals.
“This is a time of unprecedented global need, and the US is still far from returning to its historic role of safe haven for the world’s persecuted and most vulnerable,” International Rescue Committee President David Miliband said.
The refugee service organisation had urged the Biden administration to increase US refugee admissions to 62,500 in 2021.
A group of Democratic lawmakers led by Representative Ilhan Omar, herself a former refugee, had urged Biden in a letter earlier on Friday to increase US refugee admission targets.
The letter noted that “there are more displaced people today than at any time in human history” while the US is on track to admit an historically low number of refugees.
“There is immense and growing urgency on this issue,” the lawmakers wrote.
Omar accused Biden of “reneging on a key promise” and said not increasing admissions is “shameful”.
As a refugee, I know finding a home is a matter of life or death for children around the world.
It is shameful that @POTUS is reneging on a key promise to welcome refugees, moments after @RepSchakowsky @RepJayapal, myself and others called on him to increase the refugee cap. pic.twitter.com/eaxjHCUhrI
— Rep. Ilhan Omar (@Ilhan) April 16, 2021
Calling the policy “xenophobic and racist”, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called Biden’s decision “completely and utterly unacceptable”.
Completely and utterly unacceptable. Biden promised to welcome immigrants, and people voted for him based on that promise.
Upholding the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump admin, incl the historically low + plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong.
Keep your promise. https://t.co/A82xYf1XpR
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) April 16, 2021
The US has resettled some 2,000 refugees so far this year and will begin to speed up admissions under Biden’s new order.
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.
After four years of cuts to admissions under former President Donald Trump, Biden had pledged in February to restore the US’s historical role as a country that welcomes refugees from around the world
Top White House officials had said then the US president was looking for ways to admit more refugees and that he would issue an order building up the US refugee processing capacity but warned doing so would take time.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday the Biden team had found more damage done to the US refugee admissions system by the previous Trump administration than expected.
“It took us some time to see and evaluate how ineffective, or how trashed in some ways, the refugee processing system had become,” Psaki told reporters at the White House.
“We had to rebuild some of those muscles and put it back in place,” she said.