President Biden bowed to intense pressure from his political left flank Monday and raised the cap on refugees the U.S. can accept this year to 62,500, more than quadrupling the number his predecessor had set.
Mr. Biden admitted the move was largely symbolic, and his administration won’t actually be able to admit that many people. Still, he said the declaration was worthwhile as a down payment on U.S. prestige and future refugee admissions.
“It is important to take this action today to remove any lingering doubt in the minds of refugees around the world who have suffered so much, and who are anxiously waiting for their new lives to begin,” he said.
The move comes after devastating criticism from his own party and from immigrant-rights activists, who had accused him of embracing xenophobia by leaving in place President Trump’s 15,000 cap for this year.
On Monday, those groups cheered Mr. Biden, saying he’s salvaged both his and America’s leadership on the issue.
“As leader of the free world, the United States has a moral obligation to address this crisis — it’s incredibly heartening to once again see an administration who takes our nation’s humanitarian responsibilities seriously,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Refugees are people facing persecution by their home countries who apply from outside the U.S. for special protections. They are similar to asylum-seekers, who under U.S. law are those who apply from within the country.
The law requires the president to set a maximum number of refugees the U.S. will admit each year. There is no limit on how many people can apply for asylum.
Mr. Trump steadily ratcheted the cap down during his tenure, from the more than 100,000 bequeathed by President Obama to the 15,000 limit for 2021.
The former president cited fears of dangerous migrants sneaking in through the refugee system, while his team said the surge of asylum-seekers jumping the southern border — most of them with bogus claims — had overwhelmed the system, and the country needed time to work through the backlog.
Mr. Biden, during the campaign, had accused Mr. Trump of a retreat on America’s responsibilities to the world, and vowed to surpass his former boss, Mr. Obama, and raise the cap to 125,000 a year.
But with much of the fiscal year already behind him, he’s settling for half that number — and admitting he won’t be able to get there anyway, calling that a “sad truth.”
He also said Monday that getting to his 125,000 goal for 2022 will “still be hard to hit.”
Administration officials have said the machinery of the refugee and asylum systems grew rusty during the Trump years, and needs to be rebuilt.
“We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years. It will take some time, but that work is already underway,” Mr. Biden said.
Refugee groups praised the president for the symbolism, but there were some dissonant notes.
Meredith Owen, director of policy and advocacy at Church World Service, a leading nonprofit in resettling refugees in the U.S., said the president’s delay “disheartened our communities and caused real harm” to refugees who could have been admitted during the last few months.
Amnesty International USA said Mr. Biden must meet his 62,500 goal for the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
That would be a gargantuan undertaking. As of March 31, or halfway through the fiscal year, just 2,050 admissions had been recorded. The U.S. would have to admit five times that number, every month, for the rest of the fiscal year to reach that amount.