Biden is raising the 2021 refugee cap to 62,500, but says ‘the sad truth’ is he will likely not achieve it

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WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 02: U.S. President Joe Biden makes brief remarks before signing several executive orders directing immigration actions for his administration in the Oval Office at the White House on February 02, 2021 in Washington, DC. The orders will aim to reunite migrant families that were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border and authorize a wholesale review of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

  • President Joe Biden will raise this fiscal year’s refugee cap to 62,500, the White House announced.
  • The last administration had set the cap for just 15,000, an historic low.
  • Biden wants to accept 125,000 refugees in fiscal year 2022, which begins in October.
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President Joe Biden is formally pledging to accept as many as 62,500 refugees this fiscal year, even as he cautioned Monday that it will not be possible to meet that goal given the state of the resettlement program he inherited.

“This erases the historically low number set by the previous administration of 15,000, which did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees,” Biden said in a statement.

Soon after taking office, Biden pledged to reverse years of cuts and accept as many as 125,000 refugees in the next fiscal year, a level that has not been reached since 1992. And his administration said in February that it would committ to accept about half that number before the current fiscal year runs out.

But in a memorandum submitted to Congress last month, the administration caused an uproar among Democratic lawmakers and religious leaders alike, leaving the door open to keeping its predecessor’s cap for the time being. In the document, the administration said only that it would revisit the issue should 15,000 admissions “be reached prior to the end of the fiscal year” in September.

“We are very encouraged to know that President Biden followed through on his commitment to raise the refugee ceiling to 62,500,” Jenny Yang, senior vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, a Christian charity that takes part in the US government’s resettlement program, told Insider. “Many communities in the United States are ready to welcome refugees, and this first step will help save the lives of thousands of refugees around the world.”

Raising the cap does not mean 62,500 people will be resettled by then; it is a ceiling, not a floor, and Biden himself said that the “sad truth” is it will likely not be met. Even next year’s goal will be a struggle.

“We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years,” he said. “It will take some time, but that work is already well underway.”

In fiscal year 2020, the US resettled just 11,814 refugees, despite the cap being set at 18,000, according to the US State Department. For context, in 1980 more than 200,000 people fleeing war and repression were resettled.

US officials have cautioned that it will take time to rebuild a program that relies on non-governmental organizations, such as the Catholic Church, to place new arrivals – organizations that saw their capacities wither during the previous four years.

As of March 31, just 2,050 refugees had been resettled in the current fiscal year.

But advocates had urged the Biden administration to raise the refugee cap regardless of its attainability, maintaining that an aggressive goal would create the urgency needed to rebuild capacity while sending a message that refugees were indeed welcome.

“This is an important step towards ensuring that the refugee program is rebuilt in a manner that reflects our country’s values as a beacon of freedom and safety for the persecuted,” Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, said in a statement.

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The Catholic Church is urging President Biden to accept a lot more refugees

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A Jesus on the cross is seen as Catholic priests of Saint Charles Missions from Latin America, the US and Canada gather to pray at the US-Mexico border fence in solidarity to migrants and against hate and indifference, in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on July 4, 2019.

  • Bishop Mario Dorsonville scolded Biden for not immediately raising the cap on refugee admissions.
  • “The number of refugees who will be welcomed this year is far short of what we can do as a country,” he said.
  • This year’s admissions cap is 15,000, although the Biden administration says it will raise it soon.
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President Joe Biden may attend mass every Sunday, but when it comes to welcoming more refugees he has thus far been a disappointment to the Catholic Church.

Biden campaigned on establishing a more humane immigration system, promising, in particular, to restore a refugee resettlement program that had been systematically gutted by his predecessor. Soon after taking office, the first Catholic in the White House in more than 50 years announced plans to resettle as many as 125,000 refugees in fiscal year 2021, which begins October 1.

But last week the Biden administration disappointed immigrants and their allies when it informed Congress it was not committed to raising the ultra-low cap on refugee admissions set by the last White House. Left unchanged, just 15,000 people, at most, would be resettled by the end of the current fiscal year. For comparison, the US admitted over 200,000 refugees in 1980.

Bishop Mario Dorsonville, head of the US Conference on Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, said Monday the country can do a lot more to help the world’s most vulnerable

“The number of refugees who will be welcomed this year is far short of what we can do as a country and is not an adequate response to the immense resettlement need,” Dorsonville, an auxiliary bishop in Washington, DC, and himself an immigrant from Colombia, said in a statement.

The church frequently clashed with former President Donald Trump. US bishops accused him of seeking to “instigate panic in our communities” with mass deportations, and describing his efforts to practically eliminate refugee resettlement – he launched racist attacks on Somali refugees who had already come, while his adviser, Stephen Miller, advocated slashing admissions to zero – as “counter to our values as a nation of immigrants.”

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services is one of nine nonprofit organizations that partner with the US government to meet the needs of refugees who arrive in the country. Those seeking protection from war and repression deserve compassion and assistance, it teaches, citing the “mercy of Christ, who himself was a immigrant and child of refugees.”

‘Shocked and disappointed’

Faith leaders were aghast, then, at hearing the new administration suggest it might embrace continuity on refugees, at least for now, with Protestants joining Catholics in denouncing the status quo.

Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief, an Evangelic Christian group that helps resettle refugees, said he was “shocked and disappointed” by the news. By “embracing President Trump’s historically low refugee ceiling,” he said in a statement, “President Biden is betraying his commitment to build back better.”

The White House heard the uproar. Hours after appearing content to stay put, the Biden administration put out a statement reiterating that it does not plan to stick with the last administration’s refugee policy forever; it will announce a new admissions cap for the rest of this year in the coming weeks, it said. But because the resettlement program was decimated by the last administration, spokesperson Jen Psaki lowered expectations for how many will be admitted this year, walking back an earlier goal of more than 62,000.

The Catholic Church, however, is urging the administration to go big.

“We expect the administration to recalibrate and raise this ceiling,” Bishop Dorsonville said, pointing to the “unprecedented number of refugee families seeking new homes after being persecuted for religious, political, and other reasons.” The church, he added, is in fact “disappointed that it has not done so yet.”

It is not the only area of immigration policy where Biden has disappointed some Catholics. Asylum-seekers, too, have generally experienced more of the same during the first few months of this presidency. Biden has allowed unaccompanied minors to enter the US, in contrast to a predecessor who kept them on the other side of the border.

But he has otherwise maintained his predecessor’s closed-door policy, asylees included, citing a lack of infrastructure to process new arrivals, as well as the public health risk posed by increased admissions during a pandemic.

“There is an expectation that Biden would have more humanitarian policies at the border,” Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute, a Catholic group that assists migrants, recently told the Jesuit magazine America. “In practice, however, that has not happened.”

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