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Refugees

President Joe Biden

Photo by the White House

Reprinted with permission from American Independent

The White House was forced to issue an explanation on Friday following strong backlash to President Joe Biden's emergency presidential declaration leaving in place a Trump-era refugee admissions cap of just 15,000, despite promising months earlier to raise it to 62,500 for the rest of the fiscal year.

"For the past few weeks, [the president] 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," press secretary Jen Psaki wrote. "Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely."

Still, she insisted, "While finalizing that determination, 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. With that done, we expect the President to set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15."

The statement was met with cautious praise from lawmakers like Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX), who tweeted, "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. Protecting the most vulnerable seeking a safe haven is who are, it's at the heart of our nation's values."

The Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C., also said in a statement, "The United States is at its best a beacon of freedom for those facing persecution around the world, setting the standard for refugee resettlement that the rest of the world watches and emulates. In this light, we are disappointed by the Biden administration's reticence to follow through on its commitment to raise the admission levels immediately, instead maintaining the previous administration's record-low admissions cap."

"We hope this action will be reversed, even as we appreciate the effort to end the discriminatory admissions categories that left vulnerable refugees in limbo," the organization added.

Lawmakers and immigration groups had expressed outrage on earlier Friday, after Biden issued the emergency presidential declaration, with many of them pointing to the president's prior pledge and others questioning his administration's reasoning justifying the move.

"There simply is no courage or political wisdom in breaking this American promise. Maintaining a cruel policy of the past will have a vast human impact on people fleeing war and persecution. This decision is ultimately an unnecessary policy and political misstep," the Immigration Hub, an advocacy nonprofit, said in a statement.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), a refugee herself who came to the United States as a child, slammed the move, tweeting, "As a refugee, I know finding a home is a matter of life or death for children around the world. 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."

Omar was referring to a letter that she, along with Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), wrote to Biden earlier on Friday, calling on him to follow through with his promise to up the refugee admissions cap to 62,500. More than 30 members of Congress signed the letter, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who tweeted separately, "Completely and utterly unacceptable. Biden promised to welcome immigrants, and people voted for him based on that promise."

Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, responded to the backlash quickly, tweeting on Friday, "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."

Psaki also issued a statement, saying the declaration was the first of many steps the administration would take to improve refugee admissions overall.

"This is just the beginning. This step lifts the restrictions put in place by prior Administration on where refugees can come from. We need to rebuild resettlement program and we are committed to continuing to increase refugee numbers," she tweeted.

A Biden administration senior official told the New York Times, however, that an uptick of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border — which Republicans have eagerly deemed a crisis — had created growing concerns within the administration, and that the immigrant children were too much for the already-overwhelmed refugee branch of the Health and Human Services department.

"The surge of migration at the border required us to ensure HHS/ORR (Health and Human Services/Office of Refugee and Resettlement), which is responsible for both unaccompanied children and refugee resettlement, had resources to adequately handle both," a senior administration official separately told the Hill.

However, as the New York Times noted, immigrants seeking asylum at the border are processed through a separate system than those applying for admissions from abroad. There's also a distinctly separate processing system for unaccompanied immigrant children and refugees overseas.

"The Office of Refugee Resettlement is responsible for sheltering migrant minors who cross the border but has a separate budget line for assisting refugees who come from overseas," the Times wrote. "The State Department also is the agency that assists refugees for the first three months after their arrival.

According to the Office of Refugee and Resettlement's website, the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program is indeed separate from the Unaccompanied Children Program.

The refugee program serves those fleeing persecution from other countries, while the unaccompanied minors program aids children who have already arrived and approached any U.S. border.

The Biden administration also announced Friday that it would speed up refugee admissions while rebuilding the program that the Trump administration depleted, allowing in refugees from areas of the world previously de-prioritized by Biden's predecessor.

That wasn't nearly enough to quell dissatisfaction among refugee advocates, like David Miliband, president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, who told the Times, "The rightful erasure of discriminatory admissions categories does not dispense with the need for a higher number of refugees to be admitted."

For now, Biden is expected to keep his promise to raise the refugee admissions ceiling to 125,000 for fiscal year 2022, the highest in 30 years. But the decision to keep the current cap in place has left a sour taste in many people's mouths.

"Trump gutted our refugee program, a cornerstone of our global leadership and values," Julián Castro, former presidential candidate and secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama, tweeted Friday afternoon.

"His polices can't be the default we carry on—especially for the sake of 'optics.'"

Updated to include additional comments from the Center for American Progress.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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President Joe Biden In the Oval Office

Screenshot from official @POTUS Twitter

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

UPDATE: Following sharp reaction from advocates and members of Congress, the White House announced late Friday that the previous caps on refugee admissions will be lifted next month. Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that the president will seek further advice on how many refugees can be admitted during this fiscal year, which ends in October. Although Psaki said that number was unlikely to reach 62,500 as promised two months ago, due to the "decimated" state of the processing system left by Trump, the administration will "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.".

After a steady increase in pressure from outside groups and questions from the media, the Biden administration officially decided on Friday to break its pledge to lift President Donald Trump's strict limits on refugee admissions for the fiscal year ending in September.

Despite previously pledging to raise the cap on refugees from the extremely low level of 15,000 to 62,500, Biden has reversed himself. During the presidential campaign, Biden pledged to raise the cap to 125,000 in the next fiscal year, and as recently as February, Secretary of State Tony Blinken had told Congress the level set under Trump for this fiscal year would be increased more than fourfold.

Many observers had become increasingly worried about Biden's commitment to following through on this objective as the weeks dragged on without official action. Some reports indicated Biden was worried about the "optics" of raising the refugee cap. CNN's Kaitlan Collins on April 8 pressed White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on the issue given the delay, and Psaki insisted Biden was committed to the increase:

Collins: My last question, sorry, is on the refugee cap that the President has proposed raising to 62,500, but he's not actually formally signed the paperwork yet. Is the White House still committed to raising that cap to 62,500 by this fiscal year?
Psaki: Yes.
Collins: And so we should expect that before October? And it's not going to change from 62,500? -- is my other question.
Psaki: I don't anticipate that. It is -- that it would change, I should say. It is -- remains -- the President remains committed to raising the cap.

But on Friday, the fears of refugee advocates were realized.

The New York Times reported:

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the decision-making, said the administration grew concerned that the surge of border crossings by unaccompanied minors was too much and had already overwhelmed the refugee branch of the Department of Health and Human Services. But migrants at the border seeking asylum are processed in an entirely separate system than refugees fleeing persecution overseas.

It also noted:

The administration will change subcategories for refugee slots created by the Trump administration that gave priority to Iraqis who had worked for the U.S. military and people, primarily Christians, who are facing religious persecution. But the classification also disqualified most other Muslim and African refugees. As a region, Africa has the most displaced people needing resettlement. An administration official said the change would allow the Biden administration to fill the cap of 15,000, although it would also leave thousands of additional refugees cleared to fly to the United States stranded in camps.

This broken promise from Biden is a cowardly betrayal of his many supporters who were horrified by Trump's aggression toward and disregard for asylum seekers and refugees. Prior to the revelation of Biden's reversal, The Atlantic writer Adam Serwer said on Twitter: "Biden's delay in reversing Trump's discriminatory refugee restrictions is a violation of his campaign promises and the reasons he gave for running in the first place." In a new piece, he wrote:

Restoring "the soul of the nation" cannot mean simply unseating Trump. It also has to mean reversing the policies his administration put in place in an attempt to codify into law his racial and sectarian conception of American citizenship. If Biden cannot do that, then he has restored little more than Democratic control of the presidency. And should he fail to rescind these policies simply because he fears criticism of those who enabled Trump's cruelty to begin with, it will be nothing short of cowardice.
"My faith teaches me that we should be a nation that once again welcomes the stranger and shows a preferential option for the poor, remembering how so many of us and our ancestors came here in a similar way," Biden wrote in 2019. "It's not enough to just wish the world were better. It's our duty to make it so."

So far, Biden has done a lot that is popular — accelerating vaccine distribution, passing the American Rescue Plan, proposing a big infrastructure and spending package. And he may fear that increasing the refugee cap is unpopular and will derail the momentum that he has. Indeed, one Morning Consult poll found that increasing refugee admissions was the only major Biden priority that was unpopular.

But one reason for passing popular policies that meet people's needs is to have more cover and trust with the public when taking values-based policy steps that might trigger some discontent. And it's not as if raising the cap is a bait-and-switch for Biden — he campaigned on letting in more refugees, so he shouldn't feel the need to shy away from it now. It is one of the easiest ways for a president to drastically improve a large number of human lives, saving families from dire conditions in refugee camps, with little or no downside.

And there's likely no upside at all to breaking this promise. The anti-immigrant right wing will not give Biden any credit at all for backing down; instead, it will likely just encourage them to increase their demands even further. They'll cite Biden's capitulation on this promise as evidence that refugees really are a problem, and perhaps say that letting in any refugees is a problem.

This is a particularly terrible time for Biden to be retreating on the immigration issue, too, because anti-immigrant bigotry is resurgent. Fox News's Tucker Carlson, an influential leader in conservatism, is openly endorsing the white supremacist "replacement theory," which Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson recently echoed. And on Friday, a group of far-right Republicans announced the launch of a new, openly nativist caucus based on "Anglo Saxon political traditions."

Maybe this increasing sentiment on the right, combined with manufactured right-wing outrage about the border, has spooked Biden into capitulating on this issue. But appeasing this bigotry won't work. It will only embolden it.