President Biden made his most dramatic policy reversal to date on Friday—one as baffling as it was harmful—then quickly attempted to reverse that reversal. The administration announced that Biden will be keeping the limit on refugees admitted to the United States this fiscal year to 15,000, the number set by the Trump administration as part of its aggressive anti-immigrant policies and the lowest cap since the current resettlement system was instituted forty years ago. After a day of outcry, the White House then announced it would be increasing the number, by some unspecified amount, in the future.
As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden called Trump’s refugee policies “cruel and shortsighted” and pledged to raise the annual cap to 125,000 as well as “work with Congress to create a minimum admissions number of at least 95,000 refugees annually.” In early February, the State Department notified Congress of its plan to raise the cap for this fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, to 62,500. By next year, Biden said he planned to reach the 125,000 number and issued an executive order to rebuild and expand the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program in order to meet that goal.
Then for months, the administration dithered, as NGOs and advocates in Congress waited impatiently for Biden to issue a presidential “determination” that would make the 62,500 number official. In the meantime, hundreds of refugees around the world who had expected to enter the U.S. this year under the new cap had their flights canceled.
Finally, today, the determination was issued, leaving Trump’s number in place. Later Friday afternoon, after the announcement had come in for widespread criticism from many of the president’s supporters, the White House appeared to walk that back a little bit, saying that a “final” refugee cap for the year would be set on May 15, seven and a half months into the fiscal year, but Press Secretary Jen Psaki noted that it was unlikely to be as high as the original 62,500 number. The White House did not respond to my request for clarity on why a cap for the year could not be set today.
The official explanation for keeping the Trump number is that Trump had left the system in such a mess that the goal was just impossible. “It was even more decimated than we’d thought, requiring a major overhaul in order to build back toward the numbers to which we’ve committed,” one official told Reuters.
According to an official who spoke with the New York Times, “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.” The Times article notes that this explanation doesn’t make sense, as the migrants are processed through an entirely different system.
Even if the 62,500 target turned out to be too logistically difficult to pull off this year, that doesn’t explain why they couldn’t announce any improvement on the Trump number, notes Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International and former assistant secretary of State for population, refugees, and migration during the Obama administration. “The argument that logistical and capacity issues forced the administration to 15,000 is nonsense. It’s just not defensible,” he told me on Friday afternoon, after the president’s determination was released, but before the May 15 update was promised. “He didn’t have to meet his commitment to 62,500 to do better than the prior administration. Obviously, a political judgment was made and it’s a really unfortunate one.”
What was that political judgment? A Washington Post article from earlier this week suggested that while the situation at the border and the refugee resettlement program are different issues in terms of bureaucracy, “some in Biden’s orbit believe that nuance is lost on the public, particularly with conservative critics eager to portray Biden as soft on immigration.”
By May 15, the administration is likely to come up with a Goldilocks number that they feel improves on Trump but minimizes Republican criticism. And it’s possible they could get more ambitious in the coming years, but if it’s true that administration is so spooked by the potential backlash that it’s taking this long to even muster a small symbolic increase over the Trump administration’s limit, it’s a little hard to believe they’re going to get anywhere near 125,000, which would be the highest cap since 1993. It’s not as if the prevailing politics around immigration issues are likely to get any easier.
This is grim news not just for the thousands of refugees who might have had a chance to start new lives in the U.S. this year and now won’t, but for millions of other around the world, displaced by conflict and persecution. If even an administration that came into office on a platform of repudiating its predecessor’s nativism won’t take a stand on this issue, who will?