Skip to main content

White House says it would keep Trump-era cap on refugees, then backtracks

Biden administration said it would only admit 15,000 refugees in fiscal year 2021, but after backlash it vowed to increase the number
The president's Democratic allies had forcefully rejected the earlier statement confirming he would keep the numbers set by his predecessor Donald Trump (AFP/File photo)

On the same day, President Joe Biden's White House said it would maintain the Trump-era cap of 15,000 on refugee admissions only to reverse course and commit to raising that number after backlash from Democrats.

Early on Friday, the US administration sent an email saying it would only accept 15,000 refugees in the fiscal year, which ends on 1 October. Hours later, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the president is committed to increasing the cap without specifying a number.

Biden had pledged to resettle more than 62,000 refugees before the end of the fiscal year.

"Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely," Psaki said in a statement.

"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 president's Democratic allies had forcefully rejected the earlier statement confirming he would keep the numbers set by his predecessor Donald Trump, who was rebuked by opponents for his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

In February, Biden committed to increasing the US's refugee cap to 62,500, multiplying by more than four times the Trump administration's cap of 15,000 refugees.

'It is deeply disappointing that [Biden] has elected to leave in place the shameful, record-low admission cap'

- Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

During his campaign, Biden had initially vowed an even higher figure, promising to raise the cap to 125,000 people by October. 

The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the agencies involved in refugee resettlement in the US, had slammed the earlier decision by Biden, saying that while it understands ramping up admissions "can seem daunting" it opposed the Biden administration's move. 

"It is deeply disappointing that the administration has elected to leave in place the shameful, record-low admission cap of its predecessor," the group's president and CEO, Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, said in a statement.

Earlier this week, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) released a report showing that the US was on track to accept the smallest number of refugees ever recorded within any given year. 

According to the report, midway through the 2021 fiscal year, only 2,050 refugees had been admitted to the US, marking a "new historical low". 

'Moral responsibility'

The move was deeply unpopular among congressional Democrats. 

Earlier on Friday, dozens of House Democrats had signed a letter calling on Biden to raise the US's refugee cap to the 62,500 figured promised in February. 

Led by Representative Ilhan Omar, who was a refugee herself when she arrived in the US as a child, the letter highlighted the lawmakers' concerns over the Biden administration's lack of movement toward reversing Trump's drastic refugee policy. 

Biden on track to accept lowest number of refugees in modern US history
Read More »

"Having fought for four years against the Trump Administration's full-scale assault on refugee resettlement in the United States, we were relieved to see you commit to increasing our refugee resettlement numbers so early in your Administration," the letter, which was signed by at least 30 lawmakers, reads. 

"But until the Emergency Presidential Determination is finalized, our refugee policy remains unacceptably draconian and discriminatory," the lawmakers continued, referring to a type of executive order that was set to raise the refugee cap. 

The House Democrats insisted that the US keeps its 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". 

During a news conference on Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also urged Biden to increase the number of refugees admitted into the US while defending the Biden administration's response to the surge of migrants at the US's border with Mexico. 

Rights groups, progressives 'infuriated' over Biden's visa decision on Muslim ban
Read More »

"We have a moral responsibility in the world - as every other country does, too - to receive refugees who have a well-founded fear of persecution or harm [if they] return to their own country," Pelosi said at the time. 

Pramila Jayapal, the co-chair of the White House Caucus, had denounced the White House on Friday after its initial decision to keep the refugee cap at 15,000.

"It is simply unacceptable and unconscionable that the Biden Administration is not immediately repealing Donald Trump's harmful, xenophobic, and racist refugee cap that cruelly restricts refugee admissions to a historically low level," Jayapal said in a statement.

Even close allies to the president, including Senator Dick Durbin, had criticised the move.

"Refugees wait years for their chance and go through extensive vetting - 35,000 are ready today. I urge the Biden Administration to reconsider this decision and stick to their promise of increasing refugee admissions," Durbin said in a tweet.

As the president reversed his decision, many lawmakers welcomed the U-turn. 

"Thank God," Omar wrote on Twitter in response to the news. "Now we will work to make sure the cap isn't too low, meets the scale of the refugee crisis and our obligations for refugee resettlement."

The IRC report released earlier this week estimated that if the Biden White House continues its trajectory, the US would admit 4,510 refugees during the 2021 fiscal year, which represents less than half the number from the last year of the Trump administration. 

CNN, citing anonymous sources, reported on Thursday that Biden has allegedly resisted raising the refugee cap over political optics, as the surge of migrants, particularly children, continues to fill up government holding centres at the southern border. The White House has denied such accusations.