Biden adds caveat on new refugees cap
The White House’s confusing path to keeping its commitment to boost refugee numbers slashed under former President Trump was paired with an unexpected caveat: The administration doesn’t expect to meet its own goal.
The warning came alongside President Biden’s announcement on Monday that the U.S. would lift its refugee cap to 62,500 this fiscal year, with the aim of processing 125,000 by the end of next year — a goal that, if fulfilled, would mark a significant turnaround for a program that was cut to a historic low of 15,000 refugees a year under the Trump administration.
The Biden administration’s ambitions, however, are teeing up steep practical challenges and expectation setting from the White House.
“The sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year,” Biden wrote in the announcement, citing the logistical difficulties of processing tens of thousands of refugees by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
“We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years. It will take some time, but that work is already underway,” he continued.
The messaging cleanup campaign comes after the White House reneged on the 62,500 figure in mid-April, telling the State Department it would stick with the 15,000 allowed under Trump. Biden at the time tied the issue to the border after weeks of being hammered by Republicans over the surge in migrants.
“The problem was that the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up on the border with young people and we couldn’t do two things at once. And now we’re going to increase the numbers,” Biden told reporters on April 17.
That infuriated advocates who were elated by Biden’s earlier pledge to dramatically increase the cap — a move they argued would help restore U.S. leadership as a nation capable of absorbing and welcoming refugees.
“This administration pointed to the U.S. border response for its delay in increasing the refugee admission, which it’s immoral to blame one vulnerable population for the administration’s own actions for another vulnerable population,” said Meredith Owen, director of policy and advocacy for Church World Service.
“These systems are complementary. They’ve always operated in tandem, and we’ve always been able to do both of these things,” Owen said.
The mid-April announcement was followed by weeks of waffling that sparked a pressure campaign from Democrats and refugee advocates, with the administration ultimately keeping its promise to raise the cap.
At recent meetings with various refugee stakeholders, White House officials were “very clear that they recognize the message flaws of these last couple weeks,” a source familiar with the conversations told The Hill, and are now “laying the groundwork so that at the end of year people won’t say, ‘You fell short of a goal you set.’ ”
The source said even refugee resettlement groups — all of which were eager to see the Biden administration reverse Trump’s legacy with an ambitious cap — had their own hesitancy about how many refugees they would be able to resettle in the first year.
The massive drop in refugee resettlement “clearly had a devastating impact on resettlement infrastructure,” the source said.
Part of the headache facing the administration is that the network of agencies that help place refugees atrophied during the Trump administration.
Those nonprofits, many of which have religious affiliations, receive government funds for each refugee they help resettle. But Trump’s cut in refugee placement siphoned off money from groups that had been helping place more than 80,000 refugees a year in the decades prior.
More than a hundred of the 325 refugee resettlement offices open in 2016 had closed by mid-2019.
“Restarting those offices is not something we can do overnight,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which closed 17 offices during the Trump administration. “We have to hire staff; we have to reengage those communities; we have to work with State Department to recertify the sites. All those things can be a months-long process.”
In addition to refugee groups staffing up, the government will have to begin the process of conducting a multitude of health, security and other reviews before working with nonprofits to determine where to place people.
“It’s not as simple as turning on a faucet. It’s like turning on a faucet a mile away. It takes time for the water to get to you,” Owen said.
Meanwhile, those overlapping screenings can expire, she said, creating “a Venn diagram, and at the best of times there is only a two-month window when an individual refugee can travel.”
Biden’s refugee policy makes one notable shift that stakeholders say will make it easier to start processing refugees from across the globe. The administration reinstated regional-based caps, eliminating a system created under Trump that gave preference to certain groups of refugees.
“They say where there’s a will there’s a way. The Trump administration really found the ways to decimate this program because they really had the will,” said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for public affair with HIAS, which originally stood for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
The Trump administration largely limited the 15,000 slots to those facing religious persecution as well as Iraqis who had been assisting the U.S. government.
That sidelined potential refugees around the world facing persecution for their race, political leanings or social group.
“Our resettlement program is grounded in helping the most vulnerable, and if you’re fleeing persecution, you deserve an opportunity to live in safety. To pick out one form of persecution over another creates a subclass of refugees. That’s immoral,” Owen said.
But Biden’s delay on announcing the new refugee cap has had other detrimental effects.
Data from the State Department obtained by The Hill showed there were 3,100 refugees who were “flight ready” at the beginning of March. But just 271 refugees were ultimately admitted into the U.S. that month.
Anticipating an expanded refugee cap, the State Department began purchasing additional flights for refugees, only to cancel just over 700 of them earlier this year because Biden had not signed a new presidential declaration in time, according to The New York Times.
“Families were told their loved ones were booked on flights to be reunited with them after years of family separation. … I really cannot overstate how heartbroken some of the refugees were,” said Owen.
“There was significant harm caused by the delay,” she said.
Rafael Bernal contributed.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.