(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden will keep the historically low refugee cap set by former President Donald Trump for now, going back on a plan to accept many more refugees this year.
The president instead is signing a new order that will direct the federal government to accelerate processing of refugees, according to a senior administration official. The order reallocates slots to make them more readily available to people living in Africa and the Middle East. Limits on those areas set by Trump slowed refugee admissions, the official said.
The announcement drew a backlash from human-rights groups and some Democrats, who called on Biden to fulfill a pledge to raise the cap to 62,500 for the second half of the fiscal year. But the official said the U.S. couldn’t immediately reach that target due to the lack of infrastructure left behind by Trump to process refugees, and the coronavirus pandemic.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called Biden’s directive “just the beginning,” and said the president would follow through on welcoming more refugees to the U.S.
“This step lifts the restrictions put in place by prior Administration on where refugees can come from,” she tweeted later. “We need to rebuild resettlement program and we are committed to continuing to increase refugee numbers.”
Just 2,050 refugees have been admitted to the U.S. since the fiscal year began on Oct. 1, the lowest level on record in the modern era, according to an analysis from the International Rescue Committee. Trump set the cap during his final year in office at 15,000, the lowest since Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980, as he sought to curb various types of legal and illegal immigration.
The U.S. intends to use all 15,000 slots for this year and the administration will consult with Congress about increasing the cap if needed, the official said.
Biden’s decision shows he’s taking a cautious approach on moving forward on his promises to create a more humane and welcoming immigration system, as he faces a political crisis surrounding the influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Republicans have blamed Biden’s rhetoric and policies for the migration spike, a claim the White House has denied. But Biden’s posture has frustrated members of his own party who’ve demanded he deliver on his promises.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said Biden’s move was “utterly unacceptable.”
Gallery: Photos show the crowded conditions where migrant kids are being held at the US-Mexico border (Business Insider)
‘Flat Out Wrong’
“Upholding the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump admin, incl the historically low + plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong,” the New York Democrat said in a tweet.
Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration should have reversed Trump’s cap.
He said in a statement directed at Biden that the decision “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.”
Under Biden’s reallocation, 7,000 spots would be reserved for refugees from Africa, 3,000 from Latin America, 1,500 from the Near East and South Asia, 1,500 for Europe and Central Asia, 1,000 from East Asia and 1,000 would be kept in reserve.
The delay in revising the allocation, however, resulted in the flights of more than 700 refugees being canceled this year because they didn’t fit into Trump’s categories, according to Menendez.
The U.S. in March saw the highest number of apprehensions at the border in almost two decades, including a record number of children and teens traveling alone.
The situation at the Mexican border, which involves migrants seeking asylum, isn’t directly related to the refugee program, under which people apply overseas to resettle in the U.S. and face a lengthy vetting process before they’re admitted. But Psaki said Friday that the hold-up was in part due to capacity issues at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which handles both refugees admissions and sheltering children and teen migrants traveling alone.
“It took us some time to see and evaluate how ineffective, or how trashed in some ways, the refugee processing system had become. And so we had to rebuild some of those muscles and put it back in place,” Psaki said during her daily briefing with reporters.
In February, just days after his inauguration, Biden said he would raise the refugee cap for next fiscal year to 125,000 and added he would seek to make a “down payment” on that commitment by accepting more refugees this year as well. But the president also said it would be difficult to do so.
“It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do,” he said during a speech at the State Department.
Days later, the State Department notified Congress that the Biden administration intended to raise the fiscal year 2021 cap to 62,500. The Feb. 12 report said such a cap “is justified by grave humanitarian concerns and is in the national interest. The 2021 fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
(Updates with Psaki starting in fourth paragraph.)
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