Amidst growing calls to lift the historically low yearly cap on refugee admissions into the United States, President Joe Biden on Friday signed an emergency order intended to speed the admissions process for those fleeing wars, natural disaster, or persecution abroad—but did not lift the cap itself, setting up a potential conflict with Democratic allies on Capitol Hill.
The order, first reported by the Associated Press, will eliminate restrictions on entry for refugees from Somalia, Syria, and Yemen while allowing for more admissions from Africa, Central America, and the Middle East. Under President Donald Trump’s administration, which was defined by Trump’s open hostility to immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees from what he once dubbed “shithole countries,” the maximum number of refugees allowed into the United States was slashed from 85,000 people to a mere 15,000.
Less than a month into his administration, Biden pledged to raise the cap to 125,000 people in order to “rebuild what has been so badly damaged” in the immigration system.
“I’m directing the State Department to consult with Congress about making a down payment on that commitment as soon as possible,” Biden said in a speech at the State Department on February 4.
But that commitment has been largely ignored since those remarks, reportedly because continued troubles at the U.S.-Mexico border have raised concerns within the White House that the optics of expanding refugee admissions would exacerbate the situation. (The refugee admissions process is wholly separate from those seeking asylum—those in the former undergo the application and vetting process while overseas, while asylum-seekers can only seek asylum while on American soil.)
Grilled by reporters on the reason for the delay in following through on Biden’s promise, White House press secretary Jen Psaki repeatedly insisted that the president “remains committed to raising the refugee cap,” but that a timeline for doing so would not be forthcoming.
“It took us some time to see and evaluate how ineffective or how trashed in some ways the refugee processing system had become,” Psaki told reporters on Friday ahead of the order, saying that the administration needed time to “rebuild some of those muscles.”
Advocates for lifting the refugee caps, however, are not likely to be thrilled with the strength of the latest action.
“Failing to issue a new determination undermines your declared purpose to reverse your predecessor’s refugee policies,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter following the announcement, saying that the president’s inaction “threatens U.S. leadership” on migration. “As we face the largest global refugee crisis in history, with 29.6 million refugees worldwide, resettlement serves as a critical tool in providing protection to those fleeing persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
In a letter sent to the president on Friday morning ahead of the order, dozens of elected Democrats called on Biden to end the “unacceptably draconian and discriminatory” refugee caps instituted by his predecessor. Penned by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MI), who herself came to the United States from Somalia as a refugee during her childhood, and signed by more than 30 fellow lawmakers, the letter called on Biden to “keep our promises to people who have fled unthinkably brutal conditions in their home countries and live up to our ambition to provide them a safe haven to re-start their lives.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday joined the chorus of Democrats expressing dismay at the president’s inaction on refugee admissions, telling reporters that the nation has “a moral responsibility in the world… to receive refugees who have a well-founded fear of persecution or harm.”
According to the Associated Press, those calls have so far gone unheard. Citing a senior administration official, the report states that lifting the current cap on admissions has taken a backseat to reshuffling where refugees can come from.
Hours after the White House revealed the order—and after hours of increasing criticism from allies on the Hill and in the refugee advocacy sphere—the White House attempted to clarify the decision, which Psaki in a statement called “the subject of some confusion.”
According to Psaki, “the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited” meant that Biden’s pro-rated goal of allowing up to 62,500 refugees entry this fiscal year “seems unlikely.”
“While finalizing that determination, the president was urged to take immediate action to reverse the Trump policy that banned refugees from many key regions, to enable flights from those regions to begin within days; today’s order did that,” Psaki insisted. “With that done, we expect the President to set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15.”