Biden inexplicably maintains Trump’s refugee cap
Admissions this year remain historically low
WASHINGTON—President Joe Biden is on track to admit the lowest number of refugees of any modern president.
In a Feb. 4 speech at the U.S. State Department, Biden committed to raising the refugee admissions cap to 125,000, up from former President Donald Trump’s limit of 15,000 for this fiscal year, which ends in September.
“It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do,” the president said. “I’m directing the State Department to consult with Congress about making a down payment on that commitment as soon as possible.”
But more than two months later, the State Department still operates under the Trump administration’s refugee policies because Biden has yet to sign a presidential determination to make the new cap official.
The law requires the president to notify Congress before changing the refugee ceiling. On Feb. 12, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers the administration planned to admit up to 62,500 refugees for the fiscal year. In a report to Congress, the State Department said the “grave humanitarian concerns” facing refugees around the world justified the change. But Biden has yet to sign on the dotted line to make the change official.
The State Department referred an inquiry about the delay to the White House. WORLD sent an inquiry to the White House press office but has not yet received a response. So far this fiscal year, the United States has admitted 2,050 refugees, according to the State Department.
The delay appears to have caught the State Department by surprise. In late February, the department had to cancel more than 700 flights booked for already vetted refugees.
The nonprofit organization International Rescue Committee (IRC) said that without a change in policy or pace, the administration is set to admit just over 4,500 refugees for the remainder of the year.
“We’re befuddled and frustrated,” said Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization and advocacy for World Relief. He said that so far, his group’s questions to the White House have not resulted in any clarity on when the situation might change. He disputed the possibility that the pandemic was to blame, saying any refugees admitted would have to test negative for COVID-19 before getting on a flight to the United States.
Refugees differ from the asylum seekers trying to gain entry at the U.S. southern border. They apply for refugee status with the United States while still living abroad, often with the help of the UN refugee agency or a nongovernmental organization. Unlike asylum seekers at the southern border, some of whom can await adjudication of their immigration cases in the United States, refugees can only enter the country after their application is approved.
Trump currently holds the distinction for fewest refugees granted entry since the modern resettlement program’s genesis in 1980. He resettled just 11,841 refugees in fiscal year 2020. Historically, an average of 90,000 have come to the United States each year. There are 26.3 million refugees around the world, according to the UN Refugee Agency and fewer than 1 percent of them are resettled in various host countries.
Soerens said it will take time to get the refugee program back to full speed, and the delay is only hurting matters. More than one-third of U.S. resettlement offices closed during the Trump administration, with hundreds of workers losing their jobs. Trump also introduced more rigorous vetting requirements and restrictions on who could qualify for relief, slowing admissions to a crawl.
“We’ve had to reduce our capacity significantly over the past few years, as have the other eight resettlement agencies, so we’d not be prepared to receive our share of 62,500 refugees if they could all be processed and show up tomorrow.” Soerens said. “But the signing of a new refugee determination is basically the first step in that rebuilding process … even though that may take several months or even years.”
At an April 8 White House press briefing, a reporter asked press secretary Jen Psaki whether the president was still committed to raising the refugee cap to 62,500 by this fiscal year. Psaki said he was but gave no timeline for the change.
“If he ends the fiscal year as the president who presided over the lowest number of refugees resettled in the history of the program, which he is now on track to do, that will be his legacy, not President Trump’s,” Soerens said.
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