- President Joe Biden will set an increased cap on refugee admissions by May 15, the White House said.
- That comes after the Biden administration earlier suggested it was sticking with President Trump’s cap of 15,000.
- The White House faced pushback from refugee advocates and congressional Democrats for breaking a promise.
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The White House capped a confusing day of inconsistent messaging on refugees by saying President Joe Biden will set a new, higher goal for admissions by this time next month.
Earlier, the news was bleak for victims of war and repression seeking to start a new life in the United States: 15,000 cap on refugees. In an emergency directive sent to Congress on Friday, the president said that was the maximum number of refugees – the lowest in four decades – that he would commit to resettling in the current fiscal year, which ends September 30.
“Should 15,000 admissions… be reached prior to the end of the fiscal year and the emergency refugee situation persists, a subsequent Presidential Determination may be issued to increase admissions, as appropriate,” the document said.
That was a significant departure from the 62,500 that Biden announced he would resettle soon after taking office, with reports that the White House feared the “political optics” of refugee resettlement amid the surge in asylum-seekers at the southern border.
Sunil Varghese, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, said in a statement that it was “disappointing and highly unusual to see the administration backtrack on its proposal to increase refugee admissions overall.” The group said the White House should fill the 15,000 slots immediately and then raise the admissions cap up to what it initially promised – a door left open by the directive itself.
Sen. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was also livid. The White House, he said, by failing to raise the cap had “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.”
A new low on refugees
The Biden administration is currently on track to admit the fewest number of refugees in modern history, with only 2,050 admitted halfway through the 2021 fiscal year, according to an analysis by the International Rescue Committee. That, advocates concede, is a product of the last administration, which left the refugee resettlement program “decimated” as part of an agenda to drastically limit the legal avenues for immigrating to the US.
But a cap on refugee admissions is not a floor, which left many Democrats and their voters confused as to why, logistical challenges or not, the White House was tying itself to the same low number set by the administration it replaced.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan did not help clarify the matter. “America needs to rebuild our refugee resettlement program,” he said in a post on Twitter. “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.”
But what commitment? The administration has said it would like to admit as many as 125,000 refugees in the next fiscal year. It was left ambiguous whether Sullivan was referring to that or Biden’s commitment for here and now.
The confusion, clarified
To muddy things further, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, speaking to reporters Friday afternoon, said Biden “remains committed to raising the cap.” And she said, specifically, that the number by October would be 62,500.
But Psaki, too, would backtrack. In a statement issued later Friday evening, she conceded that Biden’s position on refugee admissions had been “the subject of some confusion.” She then outlined the latest stance. “Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely.”
Again, though: a cap is a cap, not a floor, and there is no legal requirement for an administration to meet it if logistics do not allow for it.
Psaki portrayed Biden’s Friday directive as merely a stopgap measure that would allow for the resettlement of refugees who had been prohibited from entry by the last president, such as those from Iraq. Left unanswered, however, is just how many refugees this administration will try to accept this year. On that question, confusion lingers – but we should have a definitive answer, Psaki said, “by May 15.”
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