Lawmakers, advocates question delay in raising refugee cap

Without Biden formally raising the cap, the U.S. is on pace to resettle the smallest number of refugees in years

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, says that “there is no justification” in delaying a formal increase to the refugee admissions cap.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, says that “there is no justification” in delaying a formal increase to the refugee admissions cap. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 15, 2021 at 2:22pm

Months after President Joe Biden took office and promised a more welcoming refugee policy than his predecessor, the U.S. is on pace to resettle the smallest number of refugees in years, mystifying resettlement agencies and lawmakers alike.

Biden has yet to officially sign an annual presidential determination for refugee admissions in fiscal 2021, leaving in place record-low refugee admission levels set by President Donald Trump in 2020 amid the escalating COVID-19 pandemic.

The delay has left many refugees in limbo, with more than 700 planned resettlement flights canceled as a result of the confusion.

“I am disappointed that President Biden has yet to officially increase the refugee admissions target,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel. “There is no justification to delay providing safe haven for these refugees, who have already been vetted and approved to come to the United States.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi nodded to lawmakers’ concerns about the low refugee admission numbers.

“We have a moral responsibility in the world, as every other country does too, to receive refugees who have a well-founded fear of persecution or harm to return to their own country,” she said Thursday at her weekly news conference. “I think right now we have — well, it’s a very few thousand, and we have to increase that number.”

According to an International Rescue Committee report, the U.S. has resettled just 2,050 refugees this fiscal year. If the cap is not raised, that number is expected to rise under the current pace of admissions to just 4,510 for fiscal 2021 — far below the current limit of 15,000 refugees and the lowest of any president ever.

“We are deeply concerned, just because we know what this means for so many families around the world who have waited years to be reunited,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, who heads the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a major resettlement agency. “The bottom line is that the U.S. continues to lose its status as a refugee resettlement leader and welcoming nation until a new presidential determination is issued.”

The delay has befuddled refugee advocates who had been optimistic after the Biden White House made early moves to signal a more welcoming attitude toward refugees.

The president announced in February a planned increase to 62,500 refugees for fiscal 2021 and an expansion of government refugee resettlement infrastructure. He pledged to raise the cap to 125,000 for his first full fiscal year in office, which starts in October.

The U.S. admitted only around 12,000 refugees in fiscal 2020 under Trump, down from nearly 54,000 in fiscal 2017 and nearly 85,000 in fiscal 2016, the last fiscal year of the Obama administration.

The process for altering the refugee admissions cap requires the administration to consult with Congress and produce a report, which was done weeks ago — it’s a matter of the president officially signing the revised determination.

“There’s no moral reason for this delay,” said Meredith Owen, director of policy and advocacy at Church World Service, another major resettlement agency. “There’s no reason that justifies turning our back on thousands of people we’ve pledged to protect.”

The White House has evaded questions about its timeline for officially raising the cap and did not respond to a specific request for comment on the topic.

During a briefing Thursday, Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked again about the status of a presidential directive to address the refugee cap, but she did not have an update on timing.

"I can assure you, and I can assure anyone who has concerns that the president remains committed to this issue. He is somebody who believes that refugees, that immigrants are the heart and soul of our country, and they have been for decades, and that is why he has proposed, you know, a comprehensive immigration reform bill," Psaki said.

As long as a new presidential determination goes unsigned, the Trump-era formula for determining which countries refugees can come from, in addition to the total number of refugees, remains in place.

The existing system bans the resettlement of refugees from Syria, Somalia and Yemen, with certain exceptions, excluding mostly Muslim refugees from areas experiencing some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. According to the IRC report, the U.S. has resettled just 42 Syrian refugees this fiscal year and no Yemeni refugees, even as those nations struggle with famine and violence.

“President Biden explicitly repealed the Muslim ban orders, but there’s this little vestige of the Muslim ban that’s left, and until Biden signs this new order, that continues to be the law,” said Adam Bates, policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who fled Somalia as a refugee during her childhood, said she has repeatedly urged the Biden administration to sign the presidential determination.

“Abandoning those who fled unthinkable atrocities does not align with the values we hold as Americans — nor does it align with the promises set by this administration,” Omar said in a press release. “President Biden must follow through on his promise and issue a Presidential Directive to immediately increase the refugee cap.”

The IRC estimates that around 1.4 million refugees worldwide are in need of resettlement. Even if Biden does sign a revised presidential determination, advocates say irreversible damage has already been done.

“The longer it takes for Biden to sign the order, the fewer refugees are going to be admitted,” Bates said. “It doesn’t seem likely that they’ll be able to just make up this time that they’re losing.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.