Huge reversal on earlier pledge made by President Biden

Biden won't raise refugee cap this fiscal year.
Originally Published: 16 APR 21 12:45 ET
Updated: 16 APR 21 14:10 ET

(CNN) — President Joe Biden will sign a declaration on Friday to speed refugee admissions to the US but not raise the refugee cap, as he had committed to doing — a significant reversal from his administration’s proposal earlier this year to lift the cap to 62,500.

Instead, Biden will sign an emergency determination that keeps the Trump-era refugee cap of 15,000, but returns to regional allocations, in effect casting a wider net of who can arrive to the US under the historically low refugee ceiling currently in place. Biden will not lift the refugee cap this fiscal year, according to an administration official. Just last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki had said Biden remained committed to raising the refugee cap to 62,500.

CNN previously reported the administration was considering stripping restrictions put in place by former President Donald Trump’s presidential determination to allow more refugees to arrive in the US.

The Biden administration has come under increased scrutiny over recent weeks for the delay in signing off on the proposed increase to the refugee ceiling. A group of House Democrats circulated a letter this week urging Biden to sign the presidential determination, saying “lives depend on it.” The refugee cap — often been viewed as a goal to be reached — must be approved by the President.

“It is deeply disappointing that President Biden has chosen to maintain for the moment the record-low refugee admissions cap of 15,000 set by his predecessor. The rightful erasure of discriminatory admissions categories does not dispense with the need for a higher number of refugees to be admitted,” said David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

Biden resisted raising the Trump-era refugee cap because of political optics, sources have told CNN, at a time when the administration has been facing heat from Republicans and Democrats for its handling of an influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border. But the situation at the US southern border is separate from the refugee program, which dates back decades and has a thorough vetting process in place for refugees overseas to resettle in the US.

Earlier Friday, Psaki suggested that the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal agency under the Health and Human Services Department, had limited capacity, given the growing number of migrants at the border. “But I would say that it is a factor. (The Office of Refugee Resettlement), which is a part of HHS, does do refugee — does do management, and had personnel working on both issues and so we have to ensure there is capacity and ability to manage both,” Psaki said.

The process is different for migrants arriving at the border than refugees coming from overseas.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, tweeted that the US needs to “rebuild” the resettlement program for refugees.

“America needs to rebuild our refugee resettlement program. We will use all 15,000 slots under the new Determination and work with Congress on increasing admissions and building back to the numbers to which we’ve committed,” Sullivan tweeted.

In February, the State Department presented Congress with a plan to expand the 15,000 refugee cap put in place by Trump to allow up to 62,500 refugees to be resettled in the United States. As is normally the process, the State Department and White House had already agreed on the number.

The proposal was also in line with Biden’s commitment during the campaign to raise the refugee ceiling and return the US to admitting a higher number of refugees after historic low arrivals under Trump. But with the situation on the US-Mexico border heating up, the proposal — and accompanying paperwork — had stalled.

The delay resulted in the cancellation of hundreds of refugee flights and left thousands of people expecting to arrive in the US after a years-long process in limbo. The emergency presidential determination will pave the way for some refugees already approved for travel to come to the US.

The fiscal year 2021 allocations include 7,000 slots for Africa, 1,000 for East Asia, 1,500 for Europe and Central Asia, 3,000 for Latin America/ Caribbean, 1,500 for Near East/ South Asia, and 1,000 slots that are unallocated.

“It’s disappointing, but now approved and vetted refugees can come here,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, a refugee resettlement organization.

As of March 31, only 2,050 refugees had been admitted to the United States this fiscal year under Trump’s 15,000 cap, according to the Refugee Processing Center, which is part of the State Department.

This story has been updated with additional reporting and reaction.

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