President Biden is facing ferocious criticism from his own party — including charges of racism — as the White House announced Friday he was retreating on his pledge to quadruple the number of refugees to be admitted into the U.S. this year.
Mr. Biden did announce steps to change some of the regional restrictions President Trump set on who could obtain refugee status, but he left unchanged Mr. Trump’s 15,000 cap on the total that can be admitted in 2021.
The White House said Mr. Biden does still plan to raise the cap later this spring, but said the 62,500 refugee cap he’d promised just two months ago probably won’t happen.
“Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Those “burdens” on ORR are the border surge, which many analysts lay at the feet of Mr. Biden. ORR is responsible for caring for the unaccompanied children rushing into the U.S., and currently has a record 19,000 children in its custody.
Ms. Paski’s reasoning did nothing to placate refugee advocates and members of Congress, particularly Democrats, who said the president was effectively embracing the Trump policy by not raising the 15,000 limit.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Mr. Biden was supporting a “racist” policy. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the influential New York Democrat, called the Biden decision “completely and utterly unacceptable.”
She said he was “upholding the xenophobic and racist policies” of Mr. Trump.
After the criticism, Mr. Biden on Saturday said he would definitely be hiking the number, though he didn’t say by how much.
He also said the refugee limit was complicated by the border situation — and he used the word “crisis” to describe it, breaking his own administration’s taboo.
“The problem was that the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up on the border with the young people,” Mr. Biden told reporters. “We couldn’t do two things at once. But now we are going to increase the number.”
On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken signaled the administration may not be able to meet Mr. Biden’s goal of 125,000 refugees next year, either.
“The president has been clear about where he wants to go, but we have to be focused on what we’re able to do when we’re able to do it,” he told ABC’s “This Week” program
Under the law written by Congress, the president each year issues a determination setting a cap for the maximum number of refugees that can be resettled.
Mr. Trump last fall set a 15,000 cap for fiscal year 2021, which began Oct. 1 and runs through Sept. 30.
Mr. Biden in February had issued an emergency report decrying the “unprecedented” number of people seeking refuge and signaling Mr. Trump’s 15,000 limit would be lifted to 62,500 — half his campaign promise of 125,000 a year.
After a shellacking by usually friendly advocacy groups, Ms. Psaki issued her statement saying there had been “confusion” about what was going on.
She said Friday’s announcement wasn’t meant to be the last word, and was merely meant to speed up refugee admissions within the 15,000 cap, while the administration works on a new higher number.
She promised that figure by May 15.
Fights over the refugee cap are nothing new.
President Obama set a cap of 110,000 refugees for 2017, but Mr. Trump cut that in half when he took office.
He then proceeded to ratchet down the number each year, leaving with a 15,000 cap set for fiscal year 2021.
That fiscal year is already halfway through, and as of March 31, just 2,050 refugees had been admitted.
The Biden administration is blaming some of the internal benchmarks the Trump administration had, such as giving priority to those fleeing religious persecution, for keeping numbers so low.
Friday’s move to erase the Trump priorities could open up some of those slots.
The new allocation would reserve 7,000 slots — nearly half the available total — for Africa. Another 1,000 would go to East Asian refugees, 1,500 to Europe and Central Asia, 3,000 from Latin America and 1,600 from the Near East and South Asia. Remaining slots would be doled out as needed.
Trump officials justified their cuts in part by pointing to security risks from refugees, and by noting that the crush of asylum-seekers jumping the border was taking manpower away from refugee processing. Asylum and refugee status are two sides of the same coin, with refugees being those who apply for protection from outside the U.S. and asylum-seekers already on American soil and applying from within.