scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Is Biden afraid of appearing too soft on immigration?

In February, the administration notified Congress it was lifting the refugee admission cap to 62,500. But Biden has been dragging his feet to make that number official.

Ethiopian refugees in Hamdayet, Sudan, on Dec. 4. This is the first stop for new arrivals after crossing the border.TYLER HICKS/NYT

The official name of the malady is xenophobia. Donald Trump did everything he could to spread the condition, and it still infects us.

Unlike Trump, President Biden doesn’t fear displaced foreigners who fled their homes due to civil conflict, natural disasters, persecution, or systemic violence. Nor does he blatantly use them as handy political props. Still, he may be afraid of appearing soft on immigration, just as some were labeled soft on crime a generation ago.

That could be one explanation for why Biden hasn’t reversed Trump’s historically low refugee admissions cap of 15,000 annually, leaving many in the resettlement world baffled. It could also be that the administration is consumed with managing the influx of migrant children at the US-Mexico border.


Regardless of the reason, Biden’s delay on welcoming refugees has been a huge disappointment for refugee advocates. And for thousands of vetted foreigners who are waiting to resettle here — some living in United Nations camps, some who are unaccompanied children, some left stranded abroad after their flights to the United States got canceled — it’s a devastating blow.

Biden promised to set the refugee admission ceiling at 125,000 for fiscal 2022. In February, the administration notified Congress it was lifting the cap, via an emergency determination, to a more modest 62,500 refugees. But Biden has been dragging his feet in making that number official, so much so that the State Department had to cancel flights of at least 715 refugees already cleared for resettlement here in late February and early March.

“There’s a human element involved,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the nation’s nine nongovernmental agencies designated for refugee resettlement. “This is not just bureaucratic red tape,” she said. “Until Biden signs the new determination, Trump’s cap of 15,000 remains in effect and is still enforced.”


In the decade before Trump, an average of 66,000 refugees were admitted into the country each year through the US refugee resettlement program, which traditionally has been a bipartisan initiative; in the ’90s, America welcomed an average of more than 100,000 refugees annually. Since its inception in 1980, the program has resettled more than 3 million refugees in the United States, more than any other country. The refugees come from countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine, Butan, and Ethiopia, where war or persecution has forced them to flee.

Technically speaking, a refugee is someone who has crossed international borders, gone through a third country, and registered with the UN refugee resettlement program to seek entry into the United States. An asylum seeker is someone who travels directly to the country to make a legal asylum claim. But the reasons behind their displacements are similar: armed conflict, extreme violence, poverty, and, increasingly, climate change. According to O’Mara Vignarajah, there are 1.4 million refugees in urgent need of resettlement.

Even when Biden decides it’s the right time to live up to his promise of truly reopening America’s doors to refugees, the system has atrophied. In the past four years, national refugee agencies saw a 38 percent decrease in their resettlement capacity due to Trump’s decimation of the system, according to a Center for American Progress report. More than 100 nongovernmental local partner offices shut down nationwide. “Ramping up admissions is easier said than done, but it is within the realm of possibilities,” said O’Mara Vignarajah. But agencies need the signal from Biden to start hiring to reopen local offices and rebuild the whole infrastructure.


The refugee resettlement system is ready to come back online, so any concerns in the White House around the decision cannot be around implementation.

In her White House press briefing on Thursday, Jen Psaki was asked about the new refugee ceiling and the canceled flights. “He [Biden] remains committed, but I don’t have an update on the timing of the flights,” Psaki said. Does it have anything to do with the fact that resources are currently going toward the US-Mexico border? “No, it’s not related to that,” she answered.

What is it, then? With no answer, there’s only puzzlement. The “soft on immigration” optics must be frightening the White House.

It has been refreshing and a relief to hear Biden reaffirm the nation’s fundamental identity as a nation of immigrants and a leader in offering hope to desperate people from other nations. And yes, rhetoric and symbolism matter, but what we need from the president now is decisive action — specifically, his signature approving the new refugee admission ceiling.

Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.