WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Friday all but abandoned a pledge to enable tens of thousands of refugees fleeing danger abroad to come to the United States this year, then abruptly backtracked after drawing a furious response from human rights advocates and fellow Democrats.
In a directive issued early Friday, the administration announced that it would leave the cap on refugees at 15,000, the record-low ceiling set by President Donald Trump. But after hours of blistering criticism from allies, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reversed the announcement, issuing an unusual statement saying that the order had been “the subject of some confusion.”
Psaki said that Biden would actually set the final cap - which sets the refugee allotment through the end of September - by May 15, and that while the White House expects it will be higher than Trump’s ceiling, it was “unlikely” to rise to the 62,500 that Biden had put forward with some fanfare in February.
Psaki said Biden could not keep that promise because the Trump administration had “decimated” the refugee program. But advocates dismissed that explanation as unpersuasive, saying the Biden team was more likely seeking to abandon the pledge amid concerns about the political criticism surrounding the current surge of migrants to the southern border.
“It’s deeply disappointing that the administration elected to leave in place the shameful record low of its predecessor,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and chief executive of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a resettlement agency working with the government.
Biden’s new decree - known formally as an emergency presidential determination - did move away from Trump-era policies by changing the regional allocation of refugees. Under Trump’s directive, strict restrictions were placed on accepting refugees from certain African and majority-Muslim countries.
Late Friday, White House officials held a call with refugee advocates, during which deputy national security adviser Jon Finer said the cap would likely be lifted well before May 15, according to two people on the call. Finer also said that the administration would try to resettle refugees as soon as possible, rather than spreading out the admissions until Sept. 30, the people said. White House officials plan to hold another meeting with advocates next week, people with knowledge of the plans said.
The White House chose the May 15 date because Biden did not want to delay the flights of already-vetted refugees into the United States any longer, doing so by lifting Trump’s restriction on refugees from specific countries. But at the same time, Biden “wants to ensure we have a clear understanding and assessment of the capacity to process refugees seeking to enter the United States,” one White House official said.
The tortuous maneuvering reflected growing concern about immigration inside the White House, according to people with knowledge of the decision-making process, who cited worries about expanding the refugee program at a moment when critics are pummeling Biden with claims that he is too soft in his policies and rhetoric. The president is struggling to contain the soaring number of migrants arriving at the southern border, which has caused significant anxiety inside the West Wing, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
Some of those people pointed to Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, as a driving force behind the president’s announcement that he would keep the Trump-era caps. A senior administration official denied that Klain engineered the initial decision and said instead that the chief of staff was a driving force behind Psaki’s clarification. All of these officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
Biden’s long-delayed decision-making has resulted in hundreds of canceled flights for refugees, including a pregnant mother who missed the window to travel, and it has cast many people into limbo who had organized their lives around coming to the United States after Biden signaled a new direction, according to advocates and Democratic lawmakers.
Biden’s directive Friday was greeted with anger from Democrats and leaders of the resettlement agencies that work with the government, some of whom equated his approach to Trump’s. The decision prompted the most forceful denunciations from his own party that Biden has experienced as president.
“This Biden Administration refugee admissions target is unacceptable. These refugees can wait years for their chance and go through extensive vetting. Thirty-five thousand are ready. Facing the greatest refugee crisis in our time there is no reason to limit the number to 15,000,” Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democrat and a close Biden ally, said in a statement. “Say it ain’t so, President Joe.”
For all the furor, the political effect of Biden’s move was unclear. While he met a torrent of outrage from Democrats, some conservatives suggested that the impulse to hold off on a dramatic increase in refugees showed sensitivity to the politics of immigration.
“This reflects Team Biden’s awareness that the border flood will cause record midterm losses *if* GOP keeps issue front & center,” tweeted Stephen Miller, a chief architect of Trump’s hard-line immigration platform.
Republicans who have struggled to dent Biden’s popularity when it comes to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy have increasingly focused on immigration, suggesting that the president has botched the situation on the border and is responsible for an influx of migrants that is hard to control.
Biden did make some changes to Trump’s order. His revised regional allocations include 7,000 spots for refugees from Africa and 3,000 from Latin America. While those moves garnered some praise, they were drowned out by the chorus of Democrats from across the political spectrum who lambasted the president’s decision and raised concerns about whether Biden would fulfill his prior commitment to lift the cap on refugees to 125,000 beginning in October.
Underlying the stormy reaction was the feeling among Democrats that harshness toward migrants and refugees was central to what they disliked about Trump. Biden was expected to usher in a return to a more welcoming United States, one that provided a haven for suffering and persecuted people from around the world.
Biden’s initial decision Friday, to some Democrats, seemed to contradict that promise as well as the president’s rhetoric promising a more tolerant country.
Before Friday’s announcement, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., prepared a letter to Biden, urging him to lift Trump’s refugee cap expeditiously and warning that the delay had already had “serious repercussions.” Menendez called the 15,000 limit that Biden has retained for now “appallingly low.”
Menendez was joined by prominent liberal lawmakers. “There are simply no excuses for today’s disgraceful decision,” tweeted Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who lived in a refugee camp in Kenya as a child after her family fled civil war in Somalia.
“Completely and utterly unacceptable,” added Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in India, issued a blistering statement calling Biden’s move “unconscionable.”
The White House acknowledged that the turbulent situation on the border played a role its decision-making process, citing the demands it has placed on the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“We have to ensure that there is capacity and ability to manage both,” said Psaki under questioning during a briefing, referring to the border surge and the refugee pressures. White House officials said the pandemic and the challenge of rebuilding a system the previous administration shredded were also factors.
But representatives of resettlement agencies working with the government were not convinced by these explanations, pointing out that the refugee system is entirely distinct from the arrangement used to process would-be migrants at the border. Jenny Yang, vice president for advocacy and policy at World Relief, said the White House’s reasons amounted to a “completely faulty excuse.”
The U.S. refugee program is aimed at people displaced from their countries because of severe conditions such as genocide, civil war, and other political, religious or racial persecution. Admission is a multistep process that begins outside the United States. That is in contrast to the asylum program, which allows migrants to apply upon arriving at the border.
Refugees go through a vetting process that can take years. Once approved, they are often paired with organizations that work to arrange transport and resettlement in the United States. Until the Trump era, the United States regularly resettled tens of thousands of refugees annually and led the world in accepting refugees.
Presidents have broad leeway in administering the program. While they must notify congressional leaders of their plans, they do not need their approval to set annual caps on how many refugees can come. Biden delivered a speech at the State Department on Feb. 4 in which he announced his intention to move sharply away from Trump’s strict policies.
“It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged,” he said in the address. He announced that he would raise the annual cap on refugee admissions to 125,000 for the next fiscal year and move swiftly toward a “down payment” soon.
On Feb. 12, the State Department submitted a report to Congress on the president’s proposal for the rest of the fiscal year, which would override Trump’s directive. The report, the culmination of an interagency process including the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, outlined how the Biden administration wanted to raise the refugee cap to 62,500 people.
In the past, signing the emergency declaration has been viewed as a formality, as the report reflects the consensus of the three agencies responsible for refugees. But Biden never signed the declaration, and people familiar with the process said they could not recall a time when a president enacted a presidential determination that was different than the report to Congress.
In early March, the State Department had to cancel flights it had booked to bring approved refugees to the country because Biden had not yet signed the presidential determination. The flights, people with knowledge of the situation said, reflected the department’s expectation that Biden would quickly sign the order to lift the cap.
The United States has accepted more than 3 million refugees since 1980, according to the State Department. That system has a history that defies political labels. Many resettlement agencies are religiously based, including some sponsored by evangelical Christians and mainstream denominations, alongside nonpartisan charitable groups.
Refugee resettlement has been a bipartisan priority for decades and at times has included strong ideological overtones, such as a Republican-backed program to resettle large numbers of Soviet Jews during the Cold War.
According to a report released recently by the International Rescue Committee, the Biden administration has admitted only 2,050 refugees at the halfway point of this fiscal year and is on pace to accept the lowest annual number of refugees of any modern president.
Biden’s backtrack is in contrast to many other areas of foreign policy and national security where the new president has pointedly reversed Trump, arguing that the United States should be a moral and humanitarian leader for the world.
“This is incredibly disappointing. The U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world and we can’t do better?” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
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The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan contributed to this report.