Biden Keeps Trump’s Record-Low Refugee-Admissions Cap, Breaking Pledge

Eritrean refugees queue during a distribution of items organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at Mai Aini refugee camp in Ethiopia on January 30. Photo: Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden signed an executive order on Friday that retains the historically low cap on refugee admissions set by President Trump, though it eliminates restrictions Trump set on which refugees qualify to resettle in the U.S. The decision to once again cap admissions at 15,000 this fiscal year is a reversal of the Biden administration’s pledge to allow up to 62,500 refugees into the U.S. through the end of September, which would have been both a significant and symbolic change from the previous administration’s anti-immigrant policies. Instead, according to a new analysis from the International Rescue Committee, Biden is now set to admit fewer refugees into the U.S. this fiscal year than any previous president has before.

Following outrage over the move, the White House then appeared to back down, at least partially, from retaining the cap as is, saying it will set a new, higher cap by May 15 while acknowledging it won’t be as high as the administration had originally said.

In early February, Biden vowed in a speech at the State Department to raise the cap on annual refugee admissions to 125,000 for the next fiscal year, which begins in October, and the State Department soon after proposed to Congress that it would raise the cap to 62,500 this fiscal year in the meantime. After two months of not following up on that plan, Biden has now scrapped it. As to why, an unnamed senior administration official who spoke with the New York Times “said the administration grew concerned that the surge of border crossings by unaccompanied minors was too much and had already overwhelmed the refugee branch of the Department of Health and Human Services.” Or it’s just about political optics: “People close to the White House’s decision-making have said they detected political concerns about expanding the refugee program at a moment when there is increasing pressure on Biden to be tougher on immigration and border security,” the Washington Post reported on Friday.

In addition, as the Times notes in its report, “migrants at the border seeking asylum are processed in an entirely separate system than refugees fleeing persecution overseas.”

The change Biden is putting in place will eliminate a policy implemented by Trump that made most refugees from many Muslim-majority and African nations ineligible for resettling in America. That policy had also given preference to Christians facing religious persecution in those same countries.

But by not expanding the cap this fiscal year, thousands of refugees who have already been cleared for entry to the U.S. will remain stuck in refugee camps until at least the fall, according to the Times.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki — who has repeatedly affirmed Biden’s commitment to raising the cap and, as recently as last week, to doing so to 62,500 this fiscal year — said on Friday that the border surge and discovering “how ineffective or how trashed the refugee processing system had become” under the Trump administration both factored into Biden’s decision-making process regarding the refugee limit.

“America needs to rebuild our refugee resettlement program,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan wrote in a tweet on Friday afternoon. “We will use all 15,000 slots under the new Determination and work with Congress on increasing admissions and building back to the numbers to which we’ve committed.”

“This is just the beginning,” Psaki added in response. “This step lifts the restrictions put in place by prior Administration on where refugees can come from. We need to rebuild resettlement program and we are committed to continuing to increase refugee numbers.”

The reversal prompted outrage from immigration and human-rights advocates on Friday. “This is incredibly disappointing,” responded National Immigration Forum executive director Ali Noorani. “The U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world and we can’t do better?”

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which works with the government to resettle refugees, said the organization was “grateful” that Biden had changed the Trump policy, which restricted refugees from African and Muslim-majority countries, but also called it “incremental progress” — and insisted the administration could have done more. “It is deeply disappointing that the administration has elected to leave in place the shameful, record-low admissions cap of its predecessor,” she said. “While it is true the Trump administration left the resettlement infrastructure in tatters, we feel confident and able to serve far more families than this order accounts for.”

There was also criticism from Democratic lawmakers:

In a statement announcing Biden’s executive order late Friday afternoon, Psaki appeared to signal some walk-back:

Biden Keeps Trump’s Record-Low Refugee-Admissions Cap