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White House reverses course, pledges to raise refugee limit after backlash from lawmakers, aid groups

UPDATED: Sat., April 17, 2021

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration drew intense criticism from Northwest refugee advocates when it announced Friday the president had decided to preserve the Trump administration’s historically low limit on the number of refugees allowed into the United States.

Two hours later, the White House reversed course, with Press Secretary Jen Psaki claiming the earlier announcement had been “the subject of some confusion.”

“I was shocked and deeply disappointed,” said Mark Finney, director of the Spokane office of World Relief, a Christian group that helps resettle refugees in their new homes. “Biden had very clearly stated his intentions for the refugee program.”

President Joe Biden announced in February he planned to raise the ceiling on refugee admissions to 125,000 in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, and would increase the current fiscal year’s limit to half that amount, 62,500.

But a presidential determination issued Friday afternoon said the limit for the current fiscal year would remain at 15,000, its lowest level since the U.S. refugee program was created three decades ago. Amid backlash from aid groups and congressional Democrats, Psaki said in a statement the president will set a higher cap by May 15.

Despite efforts to cut off refugees by former President Donald Trump, whose tenure saw admissions drop more than 82%, the country is on track to see its lowest level of refugee resettlement under Biden. Just 2,050 refugees entered the United States between last October and the end of March, the first half of the fiscal year.

“The current rate of admissions will make President Biden the president that resettles the lowest number of refugees in U.S. history,” said Georgette Siqueiros, community engagement coordinator at the Boise office of the International Rescue Committee, another resettlement organization.

“We know that there are many people who are currently vetted, cleared, have passed security clearance and have just been waiting for the piece of paper to be signed,” she said. “And now that it’s signed, it’s just not what we were expecting, after all the promises from the Biden administration.”

The previous year saw the U.S. welcome a total of 11,814 people who fled danger in their home countries, a historic low. In the last fiscal year of the Obama administration, that number was nearly 85,000, and reached higher than 132,000 under President George H.W. Bush.

“Idahoans are ready and willing to welcome refugees again and we are disappointed that the Biden Administration is allowing this historically low cap to stand,” said Tara Wolfson, director of the Idaho Office of Refugees, a nonprofit responsible for refugee services in the state.

“Refugees are part of the fabric of our communities in Idaho and they contribute in numerous ways, bringing new ideas, skills and traditions to our state, boosting the economy and working in many essential jobs, from medicine to manufacturing to tech and agriculture.”

In Spokane, a man who arrived Friday from Ukraine was just the 12th refugee since last October to be resettled by World Relief, which is affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals. In fiscal year 2016, the organization welcomed nearly 600 people, Finney said.

A spokesman for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said the 5th District Republican continues to support a refugee admissions cap of 75,000, roughly the average level during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“We have the community partners and the capacity to continue to provide that level of support to persecuted families and individuals,” Finney said, “if the federal government would simply raise that cap and let us do our job.”

The White House has blamed the low number of arrivals since October on a range of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s efforts to minimize the number of refugees allowed into the country. Psaki also said in a news conference Friday that the increase of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, including unaccompanied children, “is a factor.”

“The other piece that has been a factor,” Psaki said, “is that it took us some time to see and evaluate how ineffective or how trashed, in some ways, the refugee processing system had become. And so we had to rebuild some of those muscles and put it back in place.”

Mark Greenberg, who oversaw the refugee and unaccompanied children programs at the Office of Refugee Resettlement during the Obama administration, said it is unclear how the influx of asylum seekers at the southern border would slow the refugee program, which operates separately and vets immigrants overseas before they can come to the U.S.

“Normally, most staff are working on one or the other,” said Greenberg, now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. “I don’t know to what extent staff have had to be reassigned, given the urgency of the unaccompanied children issues, and the many challenges of the current situation are surely placing huge stress on the office overall.

“I’m hoping they will come forward with additional detail to explain what the issues are and how they can be addressed in a way that can let the administration meet the commitment it previously made to 125,000 admissions for next year.”

While the White House did not raise the overall refugee limit Friday, it did change a set of categories put in place by the Trump administration that restricted the number of refugees from many of the nations most devastated by violence. In the first half of the fiscal year, just 37 Somalis and 42 Syrians were admitted as refugees, while 524 arrived from Ukraine and 555 from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The primary reason that we weren’t going to be able to achieve even the extremely low number of 15,000,” Finney said, “was that Trump had changed the categories for eligibility and made it next to impossible for folks to get through the refugee program.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Seattle Democrat who headed the immigrant advocacy organization OneAmerica before she entered Congress, credited the administration for changing the restrictive categories but slammed the decision not to raise the cap.

“While this administration inherited a broken immigration system that was gutted and sabotaged by the previous president, it is on all of us to fix it – quickly,” Jayapal said in a statement. “A critical step to doing so is reversing the attack on the refugee resettlement program. I appreciate that President Biden eliminated geographic allocations, but this is not sufficient.”

While the White House’s reversal late Friday may satisfy refugee advocates, Finney said the initial decision was a reminder that refugees are too often forgotten.

“I think it’s a classic example of how refugees always end up getting the short end of the stick,” Finney said. “I think this policy decision reflects the fact that they’re not a priority for this administration, just like they weren’t for the previous one. And that’s just deeply disappointing, because we’re all humans, and we all have the same value.”


Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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