President Joe Biden will not raise the cap on refugee entries to the US, reneging on his administration’s previous call to admit more people fleeing from crisis than the historically low level under former president Donald Trump.
Refugee agencies and immigration advocacy groups – which have warned that the administration is on track to resettle the lowest number of refugees into the country than any other administration in US history – roundly criticised the move.
Lawmakers and refugee groups have warned that delays over admission policies have stranded already-vetted refugees, as frustrated resettlement agencies accuse the president of breaking a pledge to welcome people to the US after a chaotic four-years under Mr Trump.
In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken proposed to Congress to raise refugee admissions from 15,000 to 62,500 within the fiscal year ending on 30 September. Mr Biden has also pledged to raise the cap to 125,000 in 2022.
But in a presidential determination on Friday, the president said “the admission of up to 15,000 refugees remains justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest.”
In a statement following the order and a flood of criticism, White House press secretary Jen Psaki “given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely,” she said.
In the meantime, the president was “urged to take immediate action to reverse the Trump policy that banned refugees from many key regions, to enable flights from those regions to begin within days; today’s order did that,” she said.
The president will “set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year” by 15 May, she said.
Mr Biden’s emergency action on Friday adjusts the allocation of refugee admissions that were set in place by the former president. The new allocations will lift discriminatory restrictions on resettlements from Somalia, Syria and Yemen and add slots for refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Central America.
More than 35,000 refugees have passed security clearances and thousands of others are pending approval in a process that can take years, often in vulnerable conditions abroad.
The International Rescue Committee called Mr Biden’s decision a “disturbing and unjustified retreat” from his previous commitments.
“The rightful erasure of discriminatory admissions categories does not dispense with the need for a higher number of refugees to be admitted,” David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement on Friday. “This is a time of unprecedented global need, and the US is still far from returning to its historic role of safe haven for the world’s persecuted and most vulnerable.”
The American Immigration Council called the decision on Friday “a broken promise that will endanger the world’s most vulnerable people and hinder our country’s relationships with refugee groups worldwide.”
Senator Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said those delays will have “serious repercussions”.
He told Mr Biden that the decision “undermines your declared purpose to reverse your predecessor’s refugee policies and to rebuild” the nation’s admissions programme in the years ahead.
US Rep Ilhan Omar – whose family entered the US as refugees from Somalia – said it is “shameful” that the president has reneged on “a key promise to welcome refugees”.
“It is simply unacceptable and unconscionable that the Biden administration is not immediately repealing Donald Trump’s harmful, xenophobic, and racist refugee cap,” she said.
The chair of the Progressive Caucus and nearly 50 lawmakers wrote to the president urging him to “immediately” increase admissions.
“We have all been deeply distressed at the stories of hundreds of refugees who had been cleared for resettlement having their flights cancelled at the last minute, in some cases having already left their residences and sold their belongings,” they wrote. “We must keep our promises to people who have fled unthinkably brutal conditions in their home countries and live up to our ambition to provide them a safe haven to re-start their lives.”