President Biden will keep in place the Trump administration’s historically low cap of 15,000 refugees admitted to the United States this year, an apparent reversal of promises to allow into the U.S. more than 60,000 people fleeing danger and persecution.
The decision signals a break from vows made on the campaign trail and in the White House as well as Biden’s broader rhetorical commitment to quickly replace former President Trump’s nativist-fueled immigration policies with a more humane approach.
The Biden administration on Friday blamed the about-face on the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and of rebuilding the U.S. refugee program, which the previous administration effectively dismantled.
“It was even more decimated than we’d thought, requiring a major overhaul in order to build back toward the numbers to which we’ve committed,” a senior administration official said in a statement to The Times. The White House declined to name the official or provide a reason for anonymity. “That build back is and has been happening and will enable us to support much increased admissions numbers in future years.”
In an emergency determination Biden is signing, the administration will reallocate those 15,000 U.S. slots to more equitably distribute them among vulnerable refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Central America — regions targeted by Trump’s bans — and will speed up processing by increased testing, vaccine access and travel approval, according to the official.
In February, Biden said he’d raise the refugee cap for next fiscal year to 125,000, and would put a “down payment” on that pledge this year. In a report to Congress, his administration proposed a ceiling of 62,500 slots this year.
“It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do,” Biden said in February.
The reversal on the refugee cap immediately drew outcry from progressives, as well as from some of the administration’s closest supporters.
“There are simply no excuses for today’s disgraceful decision,” tweeted Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), whose family fled civil war in Somalia. “It goes directly against our values and risks the lives of little boys and girls huddled in refugee camps around the world. I know, because I was one.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted the administration’s earlier proposal to set the cap at 62,500 slots this year.
“The United States has a proud, bipartisan tradition of providing refugees protection through resettlement,” Menendez said in a statement. “As we face the largest global refugee crisis in history, with 29.6 million refugees worldwide, resettlement serves as a critical tool.”
Menendez also said the decision was preventing the Department of State from admitting vetted refugees already waiting in the system.
More than 100,000 refugees await resettlement to the United States, according to Amnesty International, including 35,000 refugees already approved for placement. Since January, more than 700 such refugees have had flights to the U.S. cancelled at the last minute.
“Today, President Biden is turning his back on tens of thousands of refugees around the world,” Amnesty’s Joanne Lin said in a statement.
Since the fiscal year began on Oct. 1, just over 2,000 refugees have been resettled in the U.S., putting the Biden administration behind pace to reach even 15,000 — the lowest ceiling set since the refugee program began 40 years ago.
Trump’s administration set that cap in its last year; some of his White House advisors had pushed for zero.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaski said Friday that the administration’s walk-back was due in part to an uptick in migration to the southern border. She said resources for vetting, processing and resettling refugees in the U.S. have been diverted to respond.
“It is a factor,” said Psaki, noting that the Office of Refugee Resettlement at Health and Human Services, which is charged with the care of unaccompanied migrant children, “does management and has personnel working on both issues and so we have to ensure that there is capacity and ability to manage both.”
The federal government is holding some 20,000 lone migrant children in its custody, and March marked the highest-number of unaccompanied minors ever recorded at the border, according to U.S. officials. Still, the Biden administration is quickly expelling some 70% of migrants at the border under a Trump-era pandemic policy known as Title 42, the overwhelming majority of whom are single adults.
Refugee and asylum are separate and distinct processes under U.S. law and within the federal government: Refugee status is applied for from outside the United States; asylum — a legal right afforded to migrants — is claimed at or within U.S. borders.
Refugees do not choose which country they will be resettled in; that recommendation is made primarily by the United Nations. To be placed in the United States, refugees must pass the strictest vetting process in the world, which takes well over a year.
The processing of refugees and asylum seekers is handled by different officials within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in coordination with the State Department and other federal agencies. Migrants at the border are first met by Customs and Border Protection officials.
HIAS, an international Jewish nonprofit that works on refugee resettlement and asylum in 16 countries, called the decision a “bitter disappointment” and said in a statement that Biden had “broken his repeated promises.”
Biden would raise the current year cap if needed, but the priority is to adjust the list of areas from which refugees would be admitted, a senior administration official told the Associated Press.
Friday’s emergency determination will also lift Trump’s restrictions on resettling refugees from Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
“It took us some time to see and evaluate how ineffective, or how trashed in some ways, the refugee-processing system had become,” Psaki said Friday, “and so we had to rebuild some of those muscles and put it back in place.”
The new proposed allocations for fiscal 2021, which ends Sept. 30, per the White House, are:
|Region||Proposed FY 2021 Allocation|
|Europe and Central Asia||1,500|
|Near East/South Asia||1,500|