Biden walks back refugee admissions policy after outcry and will lift cap in May

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Facing swift blowback from fellow lawmakers and aid groups, the White House on Friday said that Joe Biden plans to lift his predecessor’s historically low cap on refugees by next month, after initially moving only to expand the eligibility criteria for resettlements.

Earlier on Friday, an emergency determination signed by Biden stated the admission of up to 15,000 refugees set by Trump this year “remains justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest”. Biden had considered raising the cap to 62,500 but instead opted for a policy that officials said would speed up the admissions process. The move represented a reversal of a Biden campaign pledge.

The number of refugees allowed to resettle in the US per year fell from 85,000 to 15,000 under the former president, whose hardline “America first” agenda frequently portrayed migrants as a security threat.

The news set off a deluge of criticism as Biden faced blowback from the Democratic party. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive congresswoman from New York, tweeted: “Completely and utterly unacceptable. Biden promised to welcome immigrants, and people voted for him based on that promise.

“Upholding the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump admin, including the historically low and plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong. Keep your promise.”

Her Washington state colleague Pramila Jayapal said: “It is simply unacceptable and unconscionable that the Biden administration is not immediately repealing Donald Trump’s harmful, xenophobic and racist refugee cap that cruelly restricts refugee admissions to a historically low level … President Biden has broken his promise to restore our humanity.”

The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, sought to quell the outcry at a press conference, saying Friday afternoon that Biden has been consulting with his advisers to determine what number of refugees could realistically be admitted to the United States between now and 1 October, the end of the fiscal year.

She said “given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited” it’s now “unlikely” Biden will be able to boost that number to 62,500, as he had proposed in his plan to Congress two months ago.

But Biden, she said, was urged by advisers 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”.

Biden’s order could allow for a wider group of refugees to be considered for resettlement. It adjusts allocation limits set by Trump, providing more spaces for refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Central America, and lifts restrictions on resettlements from Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

Refugee advocacy groups had also expressed deep disappointment at the earlier announcement, noting that Biden’s campaign website promised he would “prioritize setting the annual global refugee admissions cap to 125,000”.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, described the move as both “bad policy and bad politics”.

“There is no valid policy reason to maintain the shockingly low refugee cap,” he said. “As a political matter, President Biden will alienate a lot of his supporters by failing to turn the page on President Trump’s racism, xenophobia and scapegoating of immigrants and refugees.”

The International Rescue Committee called the order “a disturbing and unjustified retreat” and suggested that at the current rate of admissions, Biden’s administration is on track to resettle the lowest number of refugees of any president in US history.

Biden previously signed an executive order pledging to increase the number of refugees admitted in the 2022 fiscal year, which begins on 1 October, to 125,000. In the current fiscal year, just over 2,000 refugees have been resettled.

The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters the delay was because “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”.

Another concern has been the record pace of unaccompanied migrants crossing the US-Mexico border, which has drawn in resources that would go to vetting, processing and resettling refugees.

“It is a factor,” said Psaki, noting that the Office of Refugee Resettlement “has personnel working on both issues and so we have to ensure that there is capacity and ability to manage both”.

Eleanor Acer, refugee protection director at Human Rights First, rejected this argument.

“As the administration certainly knows, the United States has the ability to both increase resettlement and uphold its asylum commitments at the border; not doing so means that America’s beacon of safety for refugees and asylum seekers remains dark,” she said.

“It’s also disingenuous for this administration to say it is pursuing ‘other legal pathways’ for Central American refugees to come to the United States while maintaining its shutdown of asylum at the border and leaving the limit for refugee admissions at the lowest level in history.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting