Administration

Biden rebuffs Democrats, keeps refugee admissions at 15,000

President Biden on Friday signed an order speeding refugee admissions but maintaining fiscal 2021 admissions at 15,000, a cap set by the Trump administration and a number far below the 62,500 figure proposed to Congress earlier this year.

The order would also open up slots to refugees from regions excluded by Trump, including parts of Africa and the Middle East.

But it does not raise the ceiling, as Democrats including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who came to the United States as a refugee, had urged him to do.

It also represents a retreat for the Biden administration.

The State Department in February issued a report to Congress that proposed raising the number of refugee admissions to 62,500 for the current fiscal year. Biden pledged to over time raise the number of refugees the U.S. accepts to 125,000.

A senior administration official called the Trump refugee policy "restrictive" and cast the new order as an improvement, saying it "is needed to offer protection to vulnerable refugees who could not access the program under the previous one."

But the move prompted widespread criticism from Democrats, who accused Biden of breaking his campaign promise to increase the number of refugee admissions. 

Amid the criticism, the White House appeared to backtrack Friday afternoon, saying that Biden would announce a higher refugee cap within a month while acknowledging that the earlier goal of 62,500 was "unlikely." 

"The President's directive today has been the subject of some confusion," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

"For the past few weeks, he has been consulting with his advisors to determine what number of refugees could realistically be admitted to the United States between now and October 1," Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely."

"While finalizing that determination, the President was urged to take immediate action to reverse the Trump policy that banned refugees from many key regions, to enable flights from those regions to begin within days; today's order did that. With that done, we expect the President to set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15," Psaki said. 

The decision comes as the Biden administration grapples with a surge of migrants at the U.S. southern border with Mexico and officials continue to fight the coronavirus pandemic, with cases rising again in the United States. 

The refugee program, which resettles migrants from their home countries - as opposed to asylum-seekers, who generally present themselves at the border - is designed to extract at-risk individuals from areas affected by conflict or natural disasters.

Omar, who penned a letter to Biden earlier Friday calling on the president to formally raise the cap to 62,500 after weeks of delay, called the administration's announcement "shameful," accusing Biden of "reneging on a key promise to welcome refugees."

Immigration advocates have joined that pressure campaign, as orders to raise and speed refugee admissions have lingered on Biden's desk for weeks.

Psaki refused to detail reasons for Biden's delay in signing an order raising the cap as pledged, telling reporters on Thursday that he "remains committed to raising the refugee cap" and to ensuring the humane treatment of refugees and immigrants. 

After White House officials detailed Biden's plans, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, publicly released a letter he sent to Biden earlier Friday slamming the administration's delay, saying it "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."

"Due to the delay, your Administration is on track to fall well short of welcoming a scant 15,000 refugees for FY21, itself an appallingly low admissions level set by the previous administration," Menendez wrote.  

Biden's recent budget proposal requested $4.3 billion for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), setting a goal of 125,000 refugee admissions in 2022.

ORR's budget in 2020 was $1.3 billion.

ORR, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, helps settle refugees throughout the United States, but it is also the agency in charge of caring for unaccompanied minors apprehended by U.S. border authorities.

The agency's focus this year has been on the latter mission, as an increase in the number of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum at the border has overwhelmed both ORR and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) infrastructure.

"The surge of migration at the border required us to ensure HHS/ORR, which is responsible for both unaccompanied children and refugee resettlement, had resources to adequately handle both. Our review of the U.S. refugee admissions program we inherited from the previous administration revealed it was even more decimated than we'd thought, requiring a major overhaul in order to build back toward numbers to which we've committed," the senior administration official said.

Updated 5:14 p.m.

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