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Biden’s delay on refugees

The White House’s failure to lift the historically low refugee cap means thousands of lives hang in the balance.

Tigrinyan refugee women prepared bread for their family in Umm Rakouba refugee camp in eastern Sudan in December 2020. President Biden is on track to admit fewer refugees than any president has since 1980.Nariman El-Mofty/Associated Press

This editorial has been updated to reflect breaking news.

After four years of inhumane immigration policies under Donald Trump, President Biden promised to change course. “Trump has waged an unrelenting assault on our values and our history as a nation of immigrants,” Biden’s campaign website said before the election. “It’s wrong, and it stops when Joe Biden is elected president.” Except that while the Biden administration has certainly improved the federal government’s approach to dealing with asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants, and the immigration system more broadly, there’s at least one failing from the Trump era that Biden has inexplicably hesitated to fix: the disgracefully low number of refugees admitted to the United States.


Despite signing an executive order to expand the federal refugee resettlement programs within the first two weeks of his presidency, the Biden administration decided Friday to stick with Trump-era limits on the number of people fleeing persecution that the United States accepts. After a torrent of criticism, the administration seemingly backtracked somewhat Friday afternoon, saying it would defer a final determination on this year’s refugee limit to May 15 and that it would increase. But this needn’t be so complicated: Biden ought to just make good on his campaign promise by raising the cap significantly. .

After the supposed “crisis” at the Southern border — a misnomer for what is actually going on — the president decided to hold off on working to help resolve the actual crisis for refugees around the globe, allegedly because the immigration officials who process cases are overwhelmed. Reports, however, indicate that the White House is concerned about the political optics. It also bears mentioning that the refugee resettlement program is completely separate from the asylum system, which is what the situation at the border is about, and this administration should not oversimplify the country’s immigration system by intentionally confusing these two programs with one another in order to score political points. Refugees apply from overseas; asylum seekers, as the name implies, are people who show up at the border or inside the United States seeking asylum.


Because Trump’s refugee limit is still in place, Biden has left 33,000 people who have already been approved to resettle in the United States in a state of uncertainty over their future. Hundreds have had their flights canceled at the very last moment, after getting rid of their homes and belongings in preparation for a new life in America. Simply put, the White House’s delays are creating a more dire refugee crisis with each passing day.

Even if Biden eventually follows through on his earlier promise to raise the limit of refugees admitted to 125,000 — a significant jump from the current and historically low 15,000 — the reality is that the cap would still be dramatically lower than the 231,000 ceiling that was established back when the Refugee Act passed in 1980. And though the global refugee population has increased by roughly 50 percent since then, the United States has mostly shrunk its refugee cap, even before Trump’s presidency. Biden should be thinking bigger if he wants to seriously prepare for a global refugee crisis that will only worsen as more parts of the world begin to experience the catastrophic effects of climate change — a problem that the president himself acknowledged in his executive order earlier this year.


Worst of all, Biden’s reluctance to increase the refugee cap will only embolden America’s nationalist — and white nationalist — extremists. Dragging his feet on fixing the broken immigration system, including the “badly damaged” refugee resettlement programs, as he described them, will only cement one of Trump’s successes and lend credence to the idea that refugees are somehow threats to Americans. And the longer Biden takes to act, the harder it will be to enact meaningful change.

Biden framed his presidential campaign as a “battle for the soul of this nation.” But Friday’s confusing back-and-forth over the refugee cap was discouraging. If Biden is unwilling to open America’s gates to refugees in their desperate search for a new place to call home, then it’s time to start asking: What soul is he talking about?

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.