Refugees gather early in the morning to consult a member of the Mexican Institute of Migration about their place in line.
Refugees gather early in the morning to consult a member of the Mexican Institute of Migration about their place in line. Photo by Chris Stone

Hours after he signed an order Friday limiting U.S. refugee admissions this year to the historically low 15,000 cap set under his predecessor Donald Trump, President Biden reversed course under Democratic pressure.

Earlier, Biden shelved a plan to raise the cap to 62,500.

But that first announcement drew immediate criticism from Democratic leaders, including Rep. Sara Jacobs of San Diego.

In a statement, the first-term Democrat said she was extremely disappointed that the White House has chosen to keep the Trump Administration’s “unthinkably low cap” on refugee admission.

The current levels, she said, “stand in direct contrast to American values, to President Biden’s own assurances, and to the State Department’s February report to Congress that it would raise the refugee admission target from 15,000 to 62,500.”

The White House put out a statement saying it expected to increase the cap next month.

“The president’s directive today has been the subject of some confusion,” said the statement.  “Last week, he sent to Congress his budget for the fiscal year starting in October 2021, which honors his commitment.  For the past few weeks, he has been consulting with his advisors to determine what number of refugees could realistically be admitted to the United States between now and October 1. “

The White House continued: “Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely. 

“While finalizing that determination, the President was urged to take immediate action to reverse the Trump policy that banned refugees from many key regions, to enable flights from those regions to begin within days; today’s order did that.  With that done, we expect the President to set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15.”

Homayra Yusufi, interim executive director for the San Diego-based Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, said in a statement the organizing hub was “disappointed and dismayed by the decision.”

“The Biden Administration must be bold and courageous to demonstrate that we can provide compassion to those seeking asylum at our borders as well as those seeking refuge from abroad,” he said before the policy about-face.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and the majority whip, called the administration’s admissions target “unacceptable.”

“Facing the greatest refugee crisis in our time, there is no reason to limit the number to 15,000,” Durbin said. “Say it ain’t so, President Joe.”

“It did not comment when asked to specify the number,” the Times said.

The first decision 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 15,000 figure as a way to limit immigration. The senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, forecast “much increased admissions numbers in future years.”

Jacobs said: “We have a moral obligation to provide safety and security to refugees fleeing violence and humanitarian crises. Refugees make our country better and refugee resettlement makes us a more credible advocate for human rights and democracy around the world.”

Biden, who took office in January, had signaled two months ago plans to raise the cap to 62,500 during the 2021 fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, but held off on actually doing so.

The president’s original decision 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.

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.

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter that Biden’s original move was “completely and utterly unacceptable.”

“Biden promised to welcome immigrants, and people voted for him based on that promise,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote.

Democratic U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal called Biden’s decision not to raise Trump’s “harmful, xenophobic and racist refugee cap” unconscionable.

Stephen Miller, an immigration hardliner and White House adviser under Trump, said on Twitter that Biden’s decision reflects concern that border issues could lead to losses for Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections. Miller said he would favor “zero” refugee admissions.

Refugee advocates called the decision unjustified given that there are around 35,000 refugees who have already been vetted for security and cleared for entry to the United States, with a total of about 100,000 at various stages in the pipeline.

Refugee groups previously expressed frustration that Biden had delayed issuing the cap for months, which left refugees who were scheduled to travel stranded. Mark Hetfield, president of the HIAS resettlement agency, said around 700 flights were canceled due to the holdup.

“One can’t help but guess that they are conflating the refugee issue with what is happening at the border with the refugee program, which is a real disservice,” Hetfield told Reuters.

Refugees are processed differently in the U.S. immigration system than asylum seekers arriving at U.S. borders and ports of entry.

An increasing number of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America, many seeking asylum, have been among the those detained at the border in recent months. The refugee program offers a pathway for people to apply abroad to resettle in the United States. Advocates were dismayed by the small number of slots for Central Americans in the announced cap.

Refugee admissions reached historic lows under Trump, who portrayed refugees as a security threat and made limiting the number of immigrants allowed into the United States a hallmark of his presidency.

If resettlement continues at the current pace, Biden “is on track to resettle the lowest number of refugees of any president in U.S. history,” according to the International Rescue Committee refugee advocacy group. The group called Biden’s action “a disturbing and unjustified retreat.”

Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project advocacy group, said the initial goal of 62,500 might have been ambitious, but “symbolism matters” even if the United States was unable to meet the target this year.

“President Biden came into office promising to be an ‘ally of the light, not the darkness,'” Varghese said in a statement. “But to many refugees today, that light became a flicker.”

Reuters contributed to this report.