President Joe Biden signed an order on Friday limiting U.S. refugee admissions this year to the historically low 15,000 cap set under his predecessor Donald Trump, shelving a plan to raise it to 62,500 and drawing the ire of refugee advocates and some Democratic lawmakers.
But as criticism mounted, the White House issued a statement saying Biden would set a “final, increased refugee cap” for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15.
Biden’s order to limit admissions to 15,000 was a blow to advocacy groups that wanted the Democratic president to move swiftly to reverse the refugee policies of the Republican Trump, who had set the figure as a way to limit immigration.
The program for admitting refugees is distinct from the asylum system for migrants. Refugees must be vetted while still overseas and cleared for entry to the U.S., unlike migrants who arrive at a U.S. border and then request asylum.
Biden, who took office in January, had signaled two months ago plans to raise the cap during the 2021 fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, but held off on actually doing so.
The president’s cautious approach appears to have been tied to concerns over the optics of admitting more refugees at a time of rising numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months, and to not wanting to look “too open” or “soft,” another U.S. official with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Criticism was swift. “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,” said U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, the second highest ranking Democrat in the Senate. Advocates say the two groups of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, are distinct and that resettlement was long neglected under Trump.
Hours later as the complaints flowed in, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement the original announcement had been “the subject of some confusion” and that a final refugee cap for the year would be set by May 15.
Psaki said, Biden’s “initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely” between now and the end of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, “given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited.”
Republicans have blamed Biden for the situation at the border, faulting his moves to reverse other Trump-era hardline immigration policies.
Biden pledged in February to increase the number of refugees admitted in the next fiscal year to 125,000.
Under the presidential determination signed by Biden, the United States will offer refugee status to a wider part of the world than had been allowed by Trump by changing the allocation of refugee slots, the senior administration official said.
Under Biden’s new plan, the 15,000 slots would be allocated this way: 7,000 for Africa, 1,000 for East Asia, 1,500 for Europe and Central Asia, 3,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 1,500 from the Near East and South Asia, and 1,000 for an unallocated reserve.