President Biden’s decision to maintain a Trump-era refugee cap drew swift blowback from Democrats and immigration advocates, many of whom were baffled by the administration’s move.
According to White House officials, Biden’s plan will amend Trump’s order limiting refugee admissions by speeding up admissions and re-opening the refugee program to at-risk migrants worldwide.
But the elimination of Trump’s oft-criticized ban on refugees from parts of Africa and the Middle East was overshadowed by outrage over maintaining the 15,000 refugee cap.
“It is simply unacceptable and unconscionable that the Biden Administration is not immediately repealing Donald Trump’s harmful, xenophobic, and racist refugee cap that cruelly restricts refugee admissions to a historically low level,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“By failing to sign an Emergency Presidential Determination to lift Trump’s historically low refugee cap, President Biden has broken his promise to restore our humanity,” she added.
The announcement itself caught most congressional Democrats by surprise, as many had been privately and publicly pressing the White House to move quickly and raise the refugee cap set during the Trump administration.
Just hours before the announcement, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) had sent a letter to Biden warning of the dangers of waiting too long to announce a cap increase.
Shortly after the White House revealed Biden’s plans, Menendez publicly released his letter, which now reads as a rebuff to the president’s actions.
“Failing to issue a new Determination undermines your declared purpose to reverse your predecessor’s refugee policies and to rebuild the Refugee Admissions Program to a target of 125,000 people in FY22, and threatens U.S. leadership on forced migration,” Menendez wrote.
Another powerful Senate Democrat, Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (Ill.), said the “Biden Administration refugee admissions target is unacceptable.”
“These refugees can wait years for their chance and go through extensive vetting. Thirty-five thousand are ready. Facing the greatest refugee crisis in our time there is no reason to limit the number to 15,000. Say it ain’t so, President Joe,” added Durbin.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was among the top Democrats lobbying Biden to raise the refugee cap, remained quiet on the matter, even as other prominent members of her caucus criticized Biden on Friday.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), called on the president to “keep [his] promise” to “welcome immigrants.”
“Upholding the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump admin, incl the historically low + plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong,” she tweeted.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a beneficiary of the refugee program, said on Twitter “it is shameful that @POTUS is reneging on a key promise to welcome refugees.”
Like Menendez, Omar had sent a letter to Biden earlier on Friday asking him to raise the refugee cap.
Refugee advocates also reacted with harsh words for the president.
“This is bad policy and bad politics. As a policy matter, there is no valid policy reason to maintain the shockingly low refugee cap,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a progressive immigration advocacy group.
“As a political matter, President Biden will alienate a lot of his supporters by failing to turn the page on President Trump’s racism, xenophobia and scapegoating of immigrants and refugees,” he added.
Immigration advocates were largely expecting that it was just a matter of time before Biden ordered the cap raised to 62,500, a number he set in an earlier request to Congress.
“In its February consultation with Congress, the Biden administration expressed an intention to raise the refugee resettlement ceiling to 62,500 for this fiscal year, but officials have now suggested that capacity constraints have compelled them to maintain the current ceiling,” said Eric P. Shwartz, president of Refugees International and assistant secretary of State for population, refugees and migration during the Obama administration.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement was aggressively downsized under Trump, and recently it has been focused on care for unaccompanied minors at the southern border.
Still, immigration advocates scoffed at the idea that the agency’s refugee resettlement capacity for 2021 does not exceed 15,000 people.
“That suggestion is without merit. Government agencies and the voluntary organizations that assist in resettlement have substantial capacity to resettle far more than 15,000 individuals this year,” said Schwartz.
Morgan Chalfant and Mike Lillis contributed.