White House defends ‘aspirational’ goal of 62,500 refugees

Biden press secretary Jen Psaki speaks with reporters at the White House
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The White House insisted Monday that President Biden’s goal of increasing the annual cap on refugee admissions to 62,500 was always “aspirational” but that he remains committed to upping the number above the Trump-era level of 15,000.

“We have every intention to increase the cap and to make an announcement of that by May 15 at the latest, and I expect it will be sooner than that,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at an afternoon briefing. “The president also remains committed to pursuing the aspirational goal of reaching 125,000 refugees by the end of the next fiscal year.”

Psaki defended the administration’s handling of the refugee policy, after an announcement last week that Biden would keep the cap at 15,000 prompted widespread outcry from Democrats.

Hours after the initial announcement, the White House backpedaled, saying that Biden planned to increase the number on or before May 15 but that it was unlikely that he would raise it to 62,500.

The State Department in February had sent a proposal to Congress to increase the refugee cap to 62,500, so the announcement on Friday came as a shock to Democrats and advocates alike as a result.

While Biden’s directive opened up slots to refugees from parts of Africa and the Middle East that had been excluded by the Trump administration, the decision to keep the cap at a historic low level was nevertheless blasted as a broken promise after Biden pledged to raise it on the campaign trail.  

Psaki said Monday that Biden’s stated goals of raising the refugee cap to 62,500 this year and 125,000 in fiscal 2022 were both “aspirational.”

She also said that the administration was forced to change course due to the surge of unaccompanied minors at the southern border with Mexico and officials’ discovery of the degree to which the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and other agencies had been “hollowed out” under former President Trump.

“Sometimes it takes a little bit of time to lift up the hood, kick around the tires and see what the big problems are,” Psaki said.

She repeatedly dodged questions from Fox News about whether the White House changed its policy on refugees due to blowback from Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill. She insisted that the initial announcement made clear that Biden would sign a new determination to raise admissions after the 15,000 slots are filled if needed and that the initial directive was meant to be a “first step.”

The subsequent statement Friday afternoon that Biden would raise the cap by May 15 was widely seen as a reaction to sharp public criticism from Democrats, including Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, and prominent progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.).

While Democrats welcomed the White House’s decision to backtrack, officials have not given an indication of how high Biden intends to raise the refugee ceiling beyond suggesting that it will be lower than the figure his administration promised earlier this year.

“It’s going to be very hard to meet the 62,000 this fiscal year but we’re going to be revisiting this over the coming weeks,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on ABC News on Sunday. “But the good news is, we are now starting and we are able to start to bring people in who have been in the pipeline and who weren’t able to come in.”

Asked if Biden would allow 125,000 refugees to enter the U.S. in the next fiscal year, Blinken replied: “The president has been clear about where he wants to go, but we have to be focused on what we are able to do, when we’re able to do it.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Antony Blinken Dick Durbin Donald Trump immigration policy Jen Psaki Joe Biden refugee cap Refugee policy

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