Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend

Biden administra­tion says president will lift cap on refugees in May

- BY ZEKE MILLER, AAMER MADHANI AND JULIE WATSON

WASHINGTON — Facing swift blowback from allies and aid groups, the White House on Friday said President Joe Biden plans to lift his predecesso­r’s historical­ly low cap on refugees by next month, after initially moving only to expand the eligibilit­y criteria for resettleme­nts.

In an emergency determinat­ion signed by Biden earlier in the day, he stated the admission of up to 15,000 refugees set by former President Donald Trump this year “remains justified by humanitari­an concerns and is otherwise in the national interest.” But if the cap is reached before the end of the current budget year and the emergency refugee situation persists, then a presidenti­al determinat­ion may be issued to raise the ceiling.

That set off a deluge of criticism from ranking Democratic members of Congress, including Senate Majority Whip and Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who called it “unacceptab­le.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said later that Biden has been consulting with his advisers to determine what number of refugees could realistica­lly be admitted to the U.S. between now and Oct. 1, the end of the fiscal year.

She said “given the decimated refugee admissions program we

inherited,” it’s now “unlikely” Biden will be able to boost that number to 62,500, as he had proposed in his plan to Congress two months ago.

But Biden, she said, was urged by advisers 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.”

The allocation­s provide more slots for refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Central America and lift Trump’s restrictio­ns on resettleme­nts from Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

Critics from both sides of the political spectrum had accused the president of bowing to political pressure that has been mounting over the record pace of unaccompan­ied migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Stephen Miller, a key architect of Trump’s immigratio­n policies, tweeted that it “reflects Team Biden’s awareness that the border flood will cause record midterm losses.”

The White House indicated the border situation was partly why Biden had not acted before now, even though migrants at the border do not go through the same vetting process as refugees.

“It is a factor,” said Psaki, noting that the Office of Refugee Resettleme­nt “has personnel working on both issues and so we have to ensure that there is capacity and ability to manage both.”

Connecticu­t Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who also serves on the Judiciary committee, said he didn’t buy that.

“This cruel policy is no more acceptable now than it was during the Trump administra­tion,” Blumenthal said. “To be clear: the asylum process at the southern border and the refugee process are completely separate immigratio­n systems. Conflating the two constitute­s caving to the politics of fear.”

Since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, just more than 2,000 refugees have been resettled in the U.S.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken notified Congress on Feb. 12 of a plan to raise the ceiling on admissions to 62,500, but Biden had not issued a presidenti­al determinat­ion. The law does not require congressio­nal approval, and past presidents have issued such presidenti­al determinat­ions that set the cap on refugee admissions shortly after the notificati­on to Congress.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Biden in a letter Friday that his inaction “undermines your declared purpose to reverse your predecesso­r’s refugee policies.”

Menendez said it also makes it unlikely that the program can hit its target next budget year of 125,000, which Biden has pledged to do.

Refugee resettleme­nt agencies said it was important that admissions go higher even if it’s not possible to meet the target to send a message that America again will be a leader in offering haven to the world’s oppressed.

Some 35,000 refugees have been cleared to go to the U.S., and 100,000 remain in the pipeline and their lives remain in limbo, said David Miliband, president and CEO of the Internatio­nal Rescue Committee.

“This leadership is sorely needed,” he said.

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