The White House pulled back on its decision not to raise the U.S. refugee ceiling earlier this week and promised late Friday to accept more refugees than the Trump administration's historically low levels.
Last year, Trump lowered the refugee cap to 15,000, the lowest number admitted to the United States since the refugee cap was introduced in 1980. Immigrants and refugee advocates had been hoping for an ally in Biden who pledged during his campaign to raise the ceiling and proposed in early February that it would take in up to 62,500 refugees this year.
Earlier this week, the White House broke that promise, blaming the previous government's eradication of the refugee program run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
"Over the past few weeks (President Biden) has been consulting with his advisors to determine how many refugees could realistically be admitted to the US by October 1," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Friday . "Given the program we have inherited to take in decimated refugees and the burden on the Refugee Resettlement Office, his original target of 62,500 seems unlikely."
The original decision was heavily criticized by some democratic lawmakers. MP Ilhan Omar (D-MN) called the decision in a tweet on Friday "shameful". She and her Democratic representatives Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) sent a letter to the White House on Friday in which they reiterated their call for an increase in the refugee ceiling.
Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) also criticized the decision. "In the face of the largest refugee crisis of our time, there is no need to limit the number to 15,000," Durbin said in a statement to the New York Times. "Don't say it, President Joe."
After reversing its stance on the refugee cap, the White House attempted to contain criticism by claiming there was "confusion" over the decision not to raise the cap at all. Democratic lawmakers generally welcomed the reversal, but some of them also pointed to the persistently disorganized response to the refugee crisis.
Rep. Verónica Escobar (D-TX) said this on Twitter on Friday and tweeted that she was "encouraged" by the White House clarification and urged the administration to adopt better communication on the matter. "Protecting the most vulnerable in search of a safe haven is who (we) are. This is at the heart of our nation's values," she concluded.
Although I am pleased to learn that @POTUS still intends to increase the number of refugee admissions, I urge the administrator. to move with urgency and to communicate with clarity.
Protecting the most vulnerable in search of a safe haven is at the core of our nation's values.
– Veronica Escobar MP (@RepEscobar) April 16, 2021
The Biden government has taken a number of steps to reverse Trump's extremely nativist immigration policies. In January, Biden lifted the controversial Muslim travel ban. On the other hand, the president has been criticized by progressives for continuing to detain unaccompanied minors crossing the border in temporary detention centers.
The government is also grappling with policies surrounding the recent surge in people crossing the U.S. southern border amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and political unrest in Central America.
Biden could see an election trap on immigration issues
While the Biden administration has taken many steps to reverse the Trump administration's harmful immigration policies, the initial opposition to raising the cap and possibly reversing it shows the delicate political situation the president finds himself in at the start of his first term . Relying on nativist panic and fear-mongering about crossing borders has become a firm and successful electoral strategy for right-wing politicians, and Biden's careful navigation on the matter could suggest that the president is trying to circumvent a political trap.
The tendency of the conservative media to foment this kind of paranoid nationalism further complicates matters for Biden. Just this week, Fox News' Tucker Carlson re-advocated the "big substitute" theory, a myth coined by white supremacists that says Democrats are deliberately encouraging immigration of colored people to dilute white voting power by extension, the republican base. The myth underpins the beliefs of former Trump administration officials like Stephen Miller who led the former president's restrictive immigration policy.
Although refugees are neither immigrants nor asylum seekers, the Trump administration made no such difference, viewing them all as a political threat. Under Trump, the U.S. refugee ceiling has been lowered repeatedly until it hit a low of 15,000 in October last year. This is the lowest number of refugees admitted to the US in history, at a time when the number of internally displaced persons has been highest since World War II.
In 2020, the Trump administration delayed the decision on the cap and sparked a month-long hiatus in refugee resettlement. Coupled with the pandemic, this meant that from October 2019 to September 30 of the following year, only 11,814 refugees were relocated to the United States.
In contrast, Biden ran his campaign to reverse the immigration legacy of the Trump administration. In February, he signed an executive order raising the refugee cap to 125,000 from October while trying to speed up current resettlements before the new fiscal year begins.
Biden recognized the bureaucratic challenge ahead when he signed the contract. "The moral leadership of the United States on refugee issues has been a point of bipartisan consensus for so many decades," he said in a speech at the State Department in February. "It will take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged."
But this week's controversy also shows that the Democratic Party's left flank remains determined to keep Biden's feet by the fire on immigration issues. The progressives seem to have won this round.