US President Joe Biden. Picture: BLOOMBERG/YURI GRIPAS
US President Joe Biden. Picture: BLOOMBERG/YURI GRIPAS

Washington — President Joe Biden sought to ease tensions with his political allies by quadrupling the limit on the number of refugees who can enter the US after months of administration wavering and reversals over increasing the cap.

Biden said he would allow in as many as 62,500 refugees by the end of September, up from the historically low ceiling of 15,000 set by former President Donald Trump. Biden, however, said he did not expect to reach his goal this fiscal year.

The president is seeking to move past a political blunder of his own making. His action came two weeks after the White House said he would leave Trump’s cap in place, which drew widespread condemnation from activists and legislators who accused Biden of reneging on a campaign pledge to reverse his predecessor’s hard-line policies.

Biden said Monday said his decision to officially set the annual cap at 62,500, his original goal, conveys his commitment to welcome people facing extreme hardship.

When the White House said last month that the president was backing down from his initial goal of raising the cap this year, aides said he would accelerate refugee resettlement in the US and look to lift the ceiling later in the year. Yet those promises did not assuage liberal Democrats, who were angered that he had backtracked from the higher number, first announced in February, prompting the White House to rethink its decision.

‘Lingering doubt’

“It is important to take this action today to remove any lingering doubt in the minds of refugees around the world who have suffered so much, and who are anxiously waiting for their new lives to begin,” Biden said on Monday.

He has encountered criticism from across the political spectrum for his handling of immigration. Republicans have said he is responsible for an influx of migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border. Liberal Democrats have said he has not moved quickly enough to reverse Trump’s policies curbing the number of refugees allowed into the US.

“While this new administration inherited a broken immigration system that was gutted and sabotaged by the previous president, it is on all of us to fix it — quickly,” representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington State, the chair of the Congressional progressive caucus, said.

“We must continue to rebuild our refugee system and reform our immigration system in a humane way that focuses on dignity, respect, and family unity,” she said.

In Trump’s final year in office, the cap was lowered to 15,000, the lowest since the Refugee Act of 1980 became law.

Republicans on Monday assailed the president for attempting to allow more refugees to enter the country.

“Increasing the refugee admissions cap will put American jobs and safety at risk,” senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas tweeted. “The Biden administration should be focused on getting Americans back to work.”

Biden’s statement that the US would not fill every slot this year could still irk refugee advocates. The US had only processed about 2,000 refugees by mid-April, according to government figures.

“The sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year,” Biden said. “We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years. It will take some time, but that work is already under way.”

The president added that raising the cap this year would nonetheless “reinforce efforts that are already under way to expand the US’s capacity to admit refugees” to meet his objective of resettling 125,000 next fiscal year, which begins October 1.

Course correction

The move amounts to a course correction for the White House, which caused confusion with its reversals over the refugee limit. Biden acknowledged that Trump’s historically low cap “did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees”.

Congressional Democrats and immigrant-rights activists criticised Biden after officials said on April 16 that he would not raise the refugee ceiling for this year.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said later the same day that Biden would raise the limit, but not necessarily to 62,500. Psaki last Tuesday would not say whether Biden was likely to return to his original cap, only saying it would “continue to be challenging”.

Democrats and immigrant-rights groups are keeping up pressure on Biden to keep meet his goal.

Delivering on promises

“Today’s proposal moves the administration back in the right direction, but now it must deliver on the promise and move with speed to admit and welcome up to 62,500 refugees,” Joanne Lin, national director of advocacy and government relations at Amnesty International said on Monday.

Biden intended to send a message to the world by raising the cap to his initial target that the US would once again welcome refugees, according to an administration official.

The move would also allow organisations that resettle refugees to begin ramping up their capacity, the official said. Biden administration officials said their previous decision was made in part because of an inability accept larger numbers of refugees after Trump’s cuts.

Under Biden’s new policy, 22,000 spots are reserved for refugees from Africa, 6,000 from East Asia, 4,000 from Europe and Central Asia, 5,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 13,000 from the Near East and South Asia and 12,500 would be kept in reserve.

The US has for decades allowed in tens of thousands of refugees each year who are fleeing persecution, war or natural disasters in foreign countries. Presidents have the power to set annual goals for how many to try to resettle, though many years those targets are not met.

Trump lowered the ceiling each year of his presidency as part of his efforts to slash both legal and illegal immigration.

Less than a month after taking office, Biden pledged he would raise the refugee cap to 125,000 next fiscal year. He also said he was directing officials to work on a “down payment” by lifting the limit Trump had set for this year as well.

‘Grave’ concerns

Days after Biden spoke, the state department notified Congress that the administration intended to raise the fiscal year 2021 cap to 62,500. The February 12 report said such a cap “is justified by grave humanitarian concerns and is in the national interest”.

But Biden did not sign off of the decision as he faced criticism from Republicans that his immigration policies were fuelling the numbers of migrants arriving at the southern border. The White House announced on April 16 it would keep Trump’s cap, but, allow in more refugees from Africa and the Middle East.

That announcement frustrated allies who believed it was a no-win play for the president. He would not receive political credit from Republicans while would-be refugees would be hurt by the decision, they argued. Immigrant-rights advocates have said raising the cap would create another legal way for Central Americans facing oppression to come to the US without rushing to the border, a stated goal of the Biden administration.

Meanwhile, more than 700 refugees had their resettlement plans cancelled before Biden revised the allocations because they were barred under Trump’s categories, according to immigrant-rights groups and Senate offices.

There are more than 30,000 people with conditional approval to resettle as refugees in the US, according to the International Rescue Committee.

Bloomberg News. For more articles like this, please visit Bloomberg.com

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