The White House pulled back from its decision earlier this week not to raise the US refugee cap, pledging late Friday to accept more refugees than the historically low levels set by the Trump administration.
Last year, Trump lowered the refugee cap to 15,000, the lowest number allowed into the US since the refugee cap was introduced in 1980. Immigration and refugee advocates had hoped for an ally in Biden, who pledged during his campaign to raise the cap, and proposed in early February to accept up to 62,500 refugees this year.
But earlier this week, the White House broke that promise, placing blame on the former administration’s gutting of the refugee program, which is run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
“For the past few weeks, [President Biden] has been consulting with his advisors to determine what number of refugees could realistically be admitted to the United States between now and October 1,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki in a statement on Friday. “Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely.”
The initial decision drew a strong rebuke from some Democratic lawmakers. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) called the decision “shameful” in a tweet Friday. She and fellow Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) sent a letter to the White House Friday reiterating their call for an increase in the refugee cap.
As a refugee, I know finding a home is a matter of life or death for children around the world.— Rep. Ilhan Omar (@Ilhan) April 16, 2021
It is shameful that @POTUS is reneging on a key promise to welcome refugees, moments after @RepSchakowsky @RepJayapal, myself and others called on him to increase the refugee cap. pic.twitter.com/eaxjHCUhrI
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) was also critical of the decision. “Facing the greatest refugee crisis in our time, there is no reason to limit the number to 15,000,” Durbin said in a statement, according to the New York Times. “Say it ain’t so, President Joe.”
After reversing their stance on the refugee cap, the White House tried to tamp down criticism by claiming there was “confusion” over the decision not to raise the cap in the first place. Democratic lawmakers applauded the reversal overall, but some of them also pointed out the continuously disorganized response to the refugee crisis.
Rep. Verónica Escobar (D-TX) said as much on Twitter Friday, tweeting that she was “heartened” by the White House clarification while also urging the administration to adopt better communication regarding the matter. “Protecting the most vulnerable seeking a safe haven is who [we] are, it’s at the heart of our nation’s values,” she concluded.
While I’m heartened to learn that @POTUS still intends to increase the number of refugee admissions, I urge the admin. to move with urgency and communicate with clarity.— Rep. Veronica Escobar (@RepEscobar) April 16, 2021
Protecting the most vulnerable seeking a safe haven is who are, it’s at the heart of our nation’s values.
The Biden administration has taken a number of steps to reverse Trump’s extreme nativist immigration policy. In January, Biden reversed the controversial Muslim travel ban. On the flip side, the president has come under criticism from progressives for continuing to hold unaccompanied minors crossing the border at temporary detention centers.
The administration has also struggled with the politics around a recent surge in people crossing the US southern border in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and political unrest in Central America.
Biden may see an electoral trap in immigration issues
While the Biden administration has taken many steps to undo the harmful immigration policies of the Trump administration, the initial balk at raising the cap and the eventual reversal illustrate what a delicate political situation the president finds himself in, early in his first term. Appealing to nativist panic and fearmongering over border surges has become a staple — and successful — electoral strategy for right-wing politicians, and Biden’s careful navigation on this issue may indicate that the president is attempting to avoid a political trap.
Making matters even more complicated for Biden is conservative media’s tendency to stoke this kind of paranoid nationalism. Just this week, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson once again promoted the “great replacement” theory, a myth created by white supremacists which states that Democrats purposely encourage immigration by people of color in order to dilute the electoral power of white people, and by extension, the Republican base. The myth underpins the beliefs of former Trump administration officials like Stephen Miller, who helped guide the former president’s restrictive immigration policies.
Though refugees are not immigrants — nor are they asylum seekers — the Trump administration made no such distinction, viewing them all as political threats. Under Trump, the US refugee cap was lowered repeatedly until it hit a low of 15,000 in October last year. That represents the lowest number of refugees accepted into the US in history, at a time when the number of internationally displaced persons is at its highest since World War II.
In 2020, the Trump administration delayed making a decision on the cap number, triggering a one-month pause on new refugee resettlements. That, combined with the pandemic, meant that from October 2019 to September 30 the following year, just 11,814 refugees were resettled within the US.
Biden, by contrast, ran his campaign on reversing the immigration legacy of the Trump administration. In February, he signed an executive order raising the refugee cap to 125,000 starting this October, all while attempting to ramp up current resettlements before the new fiscal year starts.
Biden acknowledged the bureaucratic challenge ahead of him when he signed the order. “The United States’ moral leadership on refugee issues was a point of bipartisan consensus for so many decades,” he said in a speech at the State Department in February. “It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged.”
But the controversy this week also illustrates that the left flank of the Democratic party remains committed to holding Biden’s feet to the fire on immigration issues. In this round, the progressives seem to have won.