WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Monday lifted the annual cap on the number of refugees who can be admitted the United States through September to 62,500, but said admissions would fall short of that mark, capping months of wavering and reversals from his administration, and blowback from human rights advocates and fellow Democrats.
In a written statement, Biden said he was raising the record-low cap of 15,000 set by the Trump administration, “which did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees.”
He added that “the sad truth” is that the U.S. will not fill all 62,500 slots — the figure his administration set in February before he backed away from it over concerns about how the government handled a migration surge at the U.S.-Mexico border. He also said his goal of 125,000 for the fiscal year that starts in October “will still be hard to hit.” Biden attributed these conclusions to challenges in rebuilding a system Trump had dismantled.
“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,” Biden said. “The United States Refugee Admissions Program embodies America’s commitment to protect the most vulnerable, and to stand as a beacon of liberty and refuge to the world.”
Biden’s decision bookended an extraordinary chapter of the U.S. refugee program that started in February when he first promised to turn the page on the Trump administration’s immigration-restrictive policies. After his administration set new targets, Biden and his aides were silent in public for two months, an unusual development that alarmed refugee advocates.
The inaction underlined the political and policy concerns about immigration that Biden and some of his top advisers are feeling in the early days of his presidency. The border surge has prompted strong criticism from both Democrats and Republicans and polls show the public is also worried about his handling of the situation.
Biden’s hesitancy had real-world consequences, refugee advocates said. They noted in recent weeks that it meant canceled flights for refugees ready to travel, including a pregnant woman who missed the window to fly. Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill urged Biden fulfill his promise, but for a time they were unsuccessful.
Biden’s announcement was hailed Monday by some refugee advocates who had criticized his vacillations.
“Today we took a critical step in reversing the terrible imprint of the Trump administration on our global humanitarian leadership,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and chief executive of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a resettlement agency working with the government.
She added, “We breathe a sigh of relief for our refugee brothers and sisters still in harm’s way, and for the thousands of families who have been forced to delay their reunification for years. We feel hopeful and blessed to be a part of reviving this lifesaving work.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who lived in a refugee camp in Kenya as a child after her family fled a civil war in Somalia, wrote on Twitter, “We are now one step closer to welcoming Refugees, but not there yet. Complacency is not how we get anything done, let’s keep pushing and demanding more. The capacity is there and we must continue to create the will.”
On April 16, amid mounting pressure from allies to explain the president’s delay in signing a new directive, the White House said it was keeping the cap where Trump had set it. The news spurred furious Democrats to criticize the White House. Hours later, the White House backtracked again, with press secretary Jen Psaki saying the administration would raise the cap after all but signaling that his original target was no longer realistic.
The president’s own misgivings drove the unusual sequence of events. With his refusal to more swiftly raise the cap as he had promised, Biden overruled his top foreign policy and national security aides, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Many advocates for refugees felt left in the dark.
Their anger was evident even after Psaki’s efforts to assure them that the cap would be raised. Among other places, it showed up on a recent private videoconference White House staffers held with the heads of resettlement agencies. During that conversation, one White House staffer said administration officials needed to do a better job of keeping the refugee resettlement groups informed.
The White House considered raising the cap to the original target of 62,500. Last week, one of the people familiar with the White House deliberations attributed the moving target in part to a review the White House was conducting of policy developments, progress and legal considerations.
Biden’s frustration with the government’s struggle to deal with unaccompanied minors at the border centered on the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s response to the crisis, the people said. The unit, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, has responsibilities for refugees and children at the border.
The administration’s efforts did not leave advocates for refugees convinced, with some noting that processing refugees depends on a separate funding stream. They accused Biden of playing politics more than anything else.
Ultimately, Biden wanted to send a message to Americans and the world that the U.S. welcomes refugees and is committed to protecting the most vulnerable, according to a senior administration official who explained the thinking behind Monday’s announcement on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.