WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden signed an emergency determination on Friday that will keep the number of refugee admissions to the U.S. at a Trump-era cap of 15,000, reversing a promise to raise the number to more than 60,000, according to a senior administration official.
The administration intends to use all 15,000 slots for fiscal year 2021, but instead will change the allocation to include regions that had been excluded under former President Donald Trump’s administration, including Africa, Latin America and South Asia, according to the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.
The Biden administration’s decision is an about-face from February, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. would allow 62,500 refugees to resettle here.
In a notification to Congress, Blinken said the cap was “justified by grave humanitarian concerns” and was in the national interest.
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Advocates and Democrats have been frustrated by the delay, which has led to the cancellation of hundreds of refugee flights and stranded thousands of people who are approved to be admitted but left in limbo without a presidential order.
A ‘trashed’ refugee system amid border crisis
The administration has been struggling to manage an influx of migrants, particularly youths, showing up at the U.S. southern border.
Although the refugee resettlement program is separate from border issues, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that “it is a factor.”
The Office of Refugee Resettlement “does do management and has personnel working on both issues, and so we have to ensure that there is capacity and ability to manage both,” she said.
Psaki added the delay was in part due to the overhaul needed to rebuild the refugee program that had been drastically cut by the Trump administration.
“It took us some time to see and evaluate how ineffective, or how trashed in some ways the refugee processing system had become, and so we had to rebuild some of those muscles and put it back in place,” she said.
The Trump administration repeatedly slashed the number of refugees allowed to come to the U.S., and Trump himself often attacked immigrants in particularly harsh rhetoric.
During an October 2020 campaign stop in Minnesota, Trump directly attacked Biden on the issue. He said Biden would turn Minnesota “into a refugee camp … overwhelming public resources, overcrowding schools, and inundating your hospitals.”
Top Democrat criticizes the plan
A top Senate Democrat blasted the Biden administration’s decision. Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that Trump’s 15,000 limit is the lowest refugee admissions cap since the inception of the refugee resettlement program 40 years ago.
He said the Biden administration’s delay in issuing its revised refugee cap “has not only stymied the number of refugees permitted entrance into the United States, but also it has prevented the Department of State from admitting vetted refugees currently waiting in the system who do not fit into the unprecedentedly narrow refugee categories designated by the Trump administration.”
Menendez said the delays mean the U.S. could actually admit even fewer than 15,000 refugees, which he called “an appallingly low admissions level set by the previous administration.”
Refugees and asylum seekers must show they have been persecuted in their home country or have a well-founded fear of persecution there on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Refugees make their claims from abroad, while asylum seekers make their claims once they’ve reached the U.S.
The new allocation allows about 7,000 people fleeing persecution from Africa; 1,000 from East Asia; 1,500 from Europe and Central Asia; 3,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean; and 1,600 from the Near East and South Asia. The administration will reserve an additional 1,000 to use as needed, according to the official.
The administration will also work with Congress to increase the number of admissions to further address “the unforeseen emergency situation,” the official said.