Biden walks back low refugee cap after lawmaker outrage

Democrats called the historically low level 'unacceptable and unconscionable'

President Joe Biden during an Oval Office meeting Thursday with members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Executive Committee.  (Doug Mills/Getty Images Pool Photo)
President Joe Biden during an Oval Office meeting Thursday with members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Executive Committee. (Doug Mills/Getty Images Pool Photo)
Posted April 16, 2021 at 3:49pm, Updated at 6:15pm

President Joe Biden on Friday walked back an announcement that set this year’s refugee admissions level at 15,000 refugees, following widespread criticism from resettlement agencies and congressional Democrats over maintaining the historically low cap set by his predecessor.

Hours after the initial White House announcement, Press Secretary Jen Psaki released a statement saying, "we expect the President to set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15."

That appeared to contradict the declaration Biden signed earlier, which suggested the administration would raise the number for the current fiscal year only if the 15,000 number had been reached and emergency refugee needs persisted.

Biden had promised in February to raise the admissions cap to 62,500 for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and the initial decision to maintain Trump-era levels sparked outrage from lawmakers and advocates.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called the decision “unacceptable and unconscionable.”

“After four painful years of fighting Trump’s all-out draconian assault on immigrants, President Biden promised to restore America as a beacon of hope and committed to increasing our refugee resettlement numbers,” Jayapal said in a statement. “By failing to sign an Emergency Presidential Determination to lift Trump’s historically low refugee cap, President Biden has broken his promise to restore our humanity.”

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who leads the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration issues, also criticized the announcement.

"This Biden Administration refugee admissions target is unacceptable," he said in a statement. "These refugees can wait years for their chance and go through extensive vetting. Thirty-five thousand are ready. Facing the greatest refugee crisis in our time there is no reason to limit the number to 15,000. Say it ain’t so, President Joe.”

The administration initially said it would maintain the Trump-era numbers because it needed time to rebuild a dismantled refugee resettlement infrastructure.

“Our review of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program we inherited from the previous administration revealed it was even more decimated than we’d thought, requiring a major overhaul in order to build back toward the numbers to which we’ve committed,” a senior administration official said early Friday.

The presidential determination, while maintaining the Trump administration’s overall number, changes the formula for which countries can send refugees. It will restore regional allocations that President Donald Trump had slashed to limit refugee resettlement from some majority Muslim countries.

The U.S. has only admitted 42 refugees from Syria and none from Yemen so far this fiscal year, excluding refugees from nations experiencing some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

“This new Emergency Presidential Determination is needed to offer protection to vulnerable refugees who could not access the Program under the previous one,” the administration official said.

The announcement also drew criticism from refugee advocates, who had counted on a friendlier policy toward refugees when Biden took office.

“I am outraged,” said Meredith Owens, director of policy and advocacy at Church World Service, a major resettlement agency. “There's no moral reason to keep a historic low refugee admissions goal of 15,000 in place for the rest of this year, especially when we know that there are thousands of refugees who have already been approved.”

Advocates also questioned the Biden administration’s insistence that the refugee resettlement infrastructure needs to be overhauled before more refugees can be admitted.

“It's kind of backwards, because the way that you build back a program is to actually build it back, not to ignore it,” said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for public affairs at HIAS, another major resettlement agency.

[Lawmakers, advocates question delay in raising refugee cap]

The new presidential determination comes after a delay of several weeks that mystified lawmakers and advocates alike. Earlier Friday, several dozen House Democrats, led by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Jayapal and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., demanded that Biden alter what they called an “unacceptably draconian and discriminatory” refugee policy.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi had also criticized the low 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.

Advocates expressed frustration the administration waited two months to change regional allocations they say would have made refugee resettlement easier, even with the low overall number.

“It could have been made months ago, and more people could have been let in,” Nezer said.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.