WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Monday reversed himself and said he would allow as many as 62,500 refugees to enter the United States during the next six months, eliminating the sharp limits that former President Donald Trump imposed on those seeking refuge from war, violence or natural disasters.
The action comes about two weeks after Biden announced that he was leaving Trump’s limit of 15,000 refugees in place, which drew widespread condemnation from Democrats and refugee advocates who accused the president of reneging on a campaign promise to welcome those in need.
Biden quickly backtracked, promising only hours later that he intended to increase refugee admissions. With Monday’s announcement, the president formally bowed to the pressure.
“This erases the historically low number set by the previous administration of 15,000, which did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees,” Biden said in a statement issued by the White House.
His sharp reversal underscored the difficulty he has had on issues involving immigration since taking office. Biden has struggled to unwind what he calls Trump’s “racist” immigration policies while also managing a surge of migrant children at the southwestern border. His initial hesitation to allow tens of thousands of additional refugees into the country was a recognition that he was already being criticized for failing to stem the flow of illegal immigration from Central America.
Over the past four years, efforts by Trump to limit the entry of refugees were among the most potent symbols of the United States’ decision to turn away from its decadeslong role as the leading destination for displaced people around the globe.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden promised to restore the country’s reputation for welcoming those seeking safety, saying he would allow as many as 125,000 refugees to enter in his first full year in office. He took a step toward that goal in February, promising to allow as many as 62,500 refugees into the United States for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends on Sept 30.
So the April 16 announcement that he was keeping the Trump-era limits in place for the time being was all the more baffling for those expecting a significant increase.
White House officials have insisted that Biden’s intentions in mid-April were misunderstood. The president says he always intended to raise the refugee cap “should the preexisting level be reached and the emergency refugee situation persist.” The Biden administration has resettled roughly 2,360 refugees out of the initial mandate of 15,000, according to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a resettlement agency.
Administration officials also argued that increasing refugee admissions could overwhelm the Department of Health and Human Services’s office that is also responding to thousands of young asylum-seekers crossing the border.
That logic, which was also adopted by the Trump administration to sharply cut refugee numbers, drew criticism from refugee advocates who accused Biden of conflating two different immigration systems.
While the Department of Health and Human Services does provide shelter to minors who cross the border, it plays a smaller role in processing refugees compared with the departments of State and Homeland Security. The Department of Health and Human Services does eventually provide financial assistance to refugees after they arrive in the United States.
In his statement Monday, Biden appeared to acknowledge that he had fumbled his handling of the issue by sending the wrong signal to the world.
“The United States Refugee Admissions Program embodies America’s commitment to protect the most vulnerable, and to stand as a beacon of liberty and refuge to the world,” he said. “It’s a statement about who we are, and who we want to be.”
Still, Biden acknowledged that the government was unlikely to reach the limit of 62,500 refugees, blaming budget and staffing cuts during the Trump administration. But he said the decision to raise the limit was necessary “to remove any lingering doubt in the minds of refugees around the world” that the United States would help them.
“The sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year,” the president said. “We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years. It will take some time, but that work is already underway.”
It is unclear whether the White House has done anything to address the resource concerns officials raised last month about the Department of Health and Human Services. The White House declined to comment on the issue Monday.
In his order Monday, Biden seemed to indicate that he recently learned the agencies had adequate resources to raise the ceiling “upon additional briefing” about the capacity for refugee resettlement.
“We clearly lost 10 weeks of momentum here due to a political miscalculation but we are elated the White House has put the train back on the tracks,” said Mark J. Hetfield, the chief executive of HIAS, a resettlement agency.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who made clear that Republicans intended to seize on Biden’s immigration agenda to galvanize the party’s base before the midterm elections next year, criticized Biden on Twitter.
“Increasing the refugee admissions cap will put American jobs and safety at risk,” Cotton tweeted, despite multiple studies showing that immigrants work jobs employers historically struggle to fill. “The Biden administration should be focused on getting Americans back to work.”
But the president’s statement drew praise from some of the very people who had criticized his earlier decision on refugees.
David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, had called Biden’s plan to keep the 15,000-refugee limit a “disturbing and unjustified retreat” from his campaign promises. On Monday, Miliband praised Biden’s “long legacy of support for refugees, from being a co-sponsor of the Refugee Act of 1980 when he was a member of the Senate, to his commitment to rebuild the resettlement program upon taking office in January.”
Oxfam America, a nonprofit organization, said in a statement: “We are relieved that the Biden administration has, after a long and unnecessary delay, kept its promise to raise the refugee admissions cap for this year to 62,500.”
The back-and-forth about the refugee program is the latest turn in the president’s struggle to deal with the immigration system.
On his first day in office, Biden proposed a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws and issued a number of executive orders aimed at rolling back Trump’s policies. But after about 100 days, immigration legislation still has not advanced in Congress. And for weeks, Biden delayed raising refugee admissions, despite a plea from his own secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to make good on his commitment.
The administration has also had to defend its response to a surge of migrants at the border with Mexico, even as Biden has continued to rely on a Trump-era health rule to rapidly turn away many migrants from entering the United States without providing them a chance to apply for asylum. The administration has said the rule is necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The president’s Republican critics have seized on the issue as a political weapon, accusing Biden of making poor policy choices that opened the floodgates to illegal immigration during a pandemic.
The administration, however, has made progress in safely processing migrant children and teenagers out of border detention facilities and into temporary shelters. While more than 5,000 minors were stuck in facilities run by the Border Patrol in March, on Monday the administration recorded roughly 600 minors in such jail-like facilities.
White House officials have urged migrants not to come to the United States now, but have promised that Biden will work to increase legal opportunities to live, work and visit the United States. Eleanor Acer, the director of refugee protection at Human Rights First, said the president must continue to do that.
“Upholding values — rather than continuing Trump administration policies that block refugees from the country — is the right step forward,” she said.