WASHINGTON – The White House said Friday President Joe Biden plans to increase the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States next month, hours after facing public outcry over a surprise decision to keep a Trump-era cap in place.
The administration said earlier Biden would sign an emergency determination that would maintain the fiscal year's target of 15,000 refugee admissions – a historically low number set by former President Donald Trump. The move, an abrupt reversal of his promise to lift the cap to 62,500, prompted immediate blowback among Democratic allies and advocacy groups.
The order instead lifted refugee admission restrictions on regions previously blocked by the Trump administration, including Africa and the Middle East, and said the president would consult with Congress "should we need to increase the number of admissions to further address the unforeseen emergency situation."
Hours later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president had been consulting with his advisers to determine the number of refugees that could "realistically be admitted to the United States" between now and Oct. 1, the end of the fiscal year.
"Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely," she said in a statement.
Psaki said Biden was urged to immediately reverse his predecessor's ban on refugees from certain regions.
"With that done we expect the President to set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15," she said.
In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken had announced the U.S. would allow 62,500 refugees to resettle, saying the move was "justified by grave humanitarian concerns."
Democrats and human rights groups blasted the earlier announcement that the caps would stay the same for now.
Rep. Ilham Omar, D-Minn., called Biden's decision to keep the Trump-era cap "shameful."
"As a refugee, I know finding a home is a matter of life or death for children around the world," tweeted Omar, herself a refugee whose family fled Somalia's civil war in the 1990s. "It is shameful that @POTUS is reneging on a key promise to welcome refugees."
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., called the decision "unacceptable and unconscionable," and said Biden "has broken his promise to restore our humanity."
"We cannot turn our backs on refugees around the world, including hundreds of refugees who have already been cleared for resettlement, have sold their belongings, and are ready to board flights," she said in a statement.
Biden's decision comes as the world faces an unprecedented refugee crisis. There were more than 25 million refugees across the globe as of mid-2020, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
A 'trashed' refugee system amid border crisis
The administration has been struggling to manage an influx of migrants, particularly youths, showing up at the U.S. southern border.
Although the refugee resettlement program is separate from border issues, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that "it is a factor."
The Office of Refugee Resettlement "does do management and has personnel working on both issues, and so we have to ensure that there is capacity and ability to manage both," she said.
Psaki added the delay was in part due to the overhaul needed to rebuild the refugee program that had been drastically cut by the Trump administration.
“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," she said.
The Trump administration repeatedly slashed the number of refugees allowed to come to the U.S., and Trump himself often attacked immigrants in particularly harsh rhetoric.
During an October 2020 campaign stop in Minnesota, Trump directly attacked Biden on the issue. He said Biden would turn Minnesota "into a refugee camp ... overwhelming public resources, overcrowding schools, and inundating your hospitals."
The administration intends to use all 15,000 slots for fiscal year 2021, but instead will change the allocation to include regions that had been excluded under former President Donald Trump's administration, including Africa, Latin America and South Asia, according to the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.
As of March 31, the U.S. has so far admitted 2,050 refugees under the Trump administration's 15,000 cap, according to the most recent data from the Refugee Processing Center.
Before Friday's reversal, Democrats in Congress were pressing Biden to formalize the 62,500 refugee cap.
"We must keep our promises to people who have fled unthinkably brutal conditions in their home countries and live up to our ambition to provide them a safe haven to re-start their lives,” more than 40 House Democrats wrote in a letter to Biden, issued shortly before the White House's decision.
Democrats, advocates criticize the plan
A key Biden ally in Congress blasted the Biden administration’s decision.
Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that Trump’s 15,000 limit is the lowest refugee admissions cap since the inception of the refugee resettlement program 40 years ago.
He said the Biden administration’s delay in issuing its revised refugee cap “has not only stymied the number of refugees permitted entrance into the United States, but also it has prevented the Department of State from admitting vetted refugees currently waiting in the system who do not fit into the unprecedentedly narrow refugee categories designated by the Trump administration.”
Menendez said the delays mean the U.S. could actually admit even fewer than 15,000 refugees, which he called “an appallingly low admissions level set by the previous administration.”
Melanie Nezer, a spokeswoman for refugee resettlement organization HIAS, said the new clarification doesn't explain waiting two months to lift restrictive regional allocations, which resulted in flight cancellations and stranding refugees waiting to be resettled.
"To now wait two months, lose those two months, and then have the result be we're not increasing admissions, it's almost worse than had he just come out of the gate and said it. Because we lost two months of refugee admissions," she said. "These are individual human beings, they're not numbers."
She said Psaki's statement also doesn't address why the administration linked the decision to the border.
"We've resettled refugees in times where there's been a lot of asylum seekers at the border and when there's been fewer asylum seekers," she said. "It's kind of inexplicable why we could be resettling refugees now as we have done for decades."
Refugees and asylum seekers must show they have been persecuted in their home country or have a well-founded fear of persecution there on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Refugees make their claims from abroad, while asylum seekers make their claims once they've reached the U.S.
The new allocation allows about 7,000 people fleeing persecution from Africa; 1,000 from East Asia; 1,500 from Europe and Central Asia; 3,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean; and 1,600 from the Near East and South Asia. The administration will reserve an additional 1,000 to use as needed, according to the official.
The administration will also work with Congress to increase the number of admissions to further address "the unforeseen emergency situation," the official said.