The Biden administration’s lack of clarity on its refugee admissions cap has earned criticism from some Republicans in addition to Democrats and refugee advocacy groups.
A group of former government officials who served under the Trump and Bush administrations, now affiliated with the Council on National Security and Immigration, are urging the White House to raise the refugee admissions cap to 62,500.
“The dismantling of the USRAP [U.S. Refugee Admissions Program] over the last four years under the false pretense that refugee resettlement is incompatible with national security has been heartbreaking,” the former officials wrote in a letter Wednesday. “While we appreciate that your administration is struggling with addressing the current situation at the southern border, we urge you to move swiftly to admit pre-approved refugees because they are not a security threat.”
Last Friday, Biden announced he would maintain the Trump-era refugee admissions level of 15,000 for the current fiscal year, despite promising in February to raise the number to 62,500. After swift condemnation from congressional Democrats and refugee resettlement groups, the White House backtracked and pledged to raise the cap by May 15.
Biden said the current situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, where the administration is scrambling to accommodate record numbers of unaccompanied migrant children, was a factor in the decision to stick with the Trump-era numbers.
“We’re going to increase the number. The problem was that the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up on the border with young people,” he said last weekend. “We couldn’t do two things at once. But now we are going to increase the number.”
Elizabeth Neumann, who signed the letter and was an assistant secretary of counterterrorism and threat prevention in the Trump administration's Homeland Security Department, said she’s been in touch with current government officials about the challenges facing the refugee program.
“There was this strong disconnect between the actions that were underway throughout the government to try to achieve this goal, and then an announcement that, ‘No, you're keeping it at 15,000’ — it just did not make sense,” Neumann, who became an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump after she left the government, said in an interview.
Other letter signers include former Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., as well as former DHS policy development office chief of staff Marc Frey, former DHS general counsel John Mitnick and former DHS deputy assistant secretary for policy, Paul Rosenzweig.
The officials said a robust refugee program would bolster national security, in part by broadcasting humanitarian values that contrast with those of U.S. adversaries.
“As we saw on 9/11, ignoring the problem because it's over ‘there’ doesn't tend to go well for us,” Neumann said. “Some of the best tools that we have to prevent that are to demonstrate our goodwill, our humanitarian values in counter to a lot of the messaging that is used by our enemies.”
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Thursday, Republican lawmakers also signaled support for the refugee program, which has historically enjoyed bipartisan backing, although some cautioned that addressing high migration to the U.S. border should be a bigger priority.
“I'd be willing to increase it [the refugee cap] some as part of an overall immigration deal,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I'm not opposed to raising the refugee cap if we can get a handle over the illegal immigration problem.”
Others sought to distinguish the two issues — refugee resettlement is different from adjudicating the claims of asylum seekers who present themselves at the border, although Biden said the efforts have drawn on the same government resources.
“I believe very strongly that we need to take control of our southern border, but that's a totally different issue from refugees, who have gone through the process and been vetted,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Neumann also said support exists among Republican voters as well, citing some evangelical Christians who supported Biden in the 2020 presidential election because of his promise to expand the refugee resettlement program.
“There’s a decent number of Republicans that are in the same place I am,” she said.
Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.