Despite promises, Biden on pace to accept far fewer refugees than Trump

Biden promised to lift Trump's cap, but now the U.S. is set the accept the fewest number of refugees since 1980

By Igor Derysh
April 14, 2021 10:14PM (UTC)
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Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The United States is on pace to accept the fewest number of refugees in more than 40 years despite President Joe Biden's vow to boost resettlement levels to historic highs.

Initially, Biden entered office with a flurry of executive actions rolling back many of former President Donald Trump's immigration policies. Trump had decimated the refugee resettlement program, which limited the number of refugees at 110,000 the year he entered office, cutting the cap to just 15,000 on his way out. Biden then announced his intent to raise the cap to 62,500 for the fiscal year ending in September and double that for the following fiscal year. But even though such a move would only require his signature, Biden has yet to issue any executive actions raising the ceiling on admissions and the White House has curiously continued to dodge questions about the delay.

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Without any action from Biden's White House, the country is set to accept the lowest number of refugees since the resettlement program began in 1980, according to a report from the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit humanitarian aid group.

The US has admitted just 2,050 refugees halfway through the fiscal year and is on pace to admit only 5,410 refugees through September, well below the 11,814 admitted in Trump's final fiscal year and the 15,000 cap imposed by Trump for this fiscal year.

"There has now been an unexplained and unjustified eight-week delay in issuing the revised refugee admissions policy," the IRC report said. "This delay means that highly restrictive and discriminatory Trump-era policies remain firmly in place. As a result, tens of thousands of already-cleared refugees remain barred from resettlement and over 700 resettlement flights have been cancelled, leaving vulnerable refugees in uncertain limbo."

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The report also criticized Biden for leaving in place Trump's October executive action banning the resettlement of most refugees from Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, arguing that the Biden administration is continuing to deny refugees "fleeing the world's worst displacement crises." It also argued that by refusing to raise the refugee cap the administration was neglecting to use a "critical tool" to address the rise in migrants at the Southern border, noting that the US has accepted just 139 refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

"With more than 1.4 million refugees in need of resettlement worldwide and fewer than 1 percent of all refugees ever considered for this life-saving program, no admissions slot should go unfilled," the report said.

"I don't know the specific reason why [Biden] hasn't signed, and it's really unusual that he hasn't signed," Nazanin Ash, the vice president for global policy and advocacy at IRC, told The Washington Post. "It is typically a standard, automatic last step in the process."

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly avoided answering questions about the timeline to raise the admissions ceiling.

"It's an issue he remains committed to," she told reporters on Monday.

State Department spokesman Ned Price echoed that talking point but told the Associated Press that there is a "great deal of rebuilding that needs to take place in order to have a refugee program that allows us to achieve what we wanted to achieve in a way that is both effective and that is safe."

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Ash argued that Trump administration policies targeting refugees from Muslim-majority countries "are nothing short of discriminatory" and, as a result of the extensive nature of refugee vetting, have no implications for security or other concerns.

"They were simply put in place by the Trump administration to restrict refugee admissions and in particular to restrict the admission of black, brown, Asian and Muslim refugees," Ash told the Post.

More than 100 elected state and local officials last week joined advocacy groups in calling on Biden to immediately raise the cap to 62,500 for the second half of the fiscal year.

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"At least 80 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes and among them are more than 29 million refugees," the letter said. "Despite this, only a tiny fraction will ever be afforded the chance for resettlement to a third country, like the United States. Now is the time for your administration to fulfill its commitment to human rights and refugee protection; only then can we urge the global community to also do their part."

Journalists have also repeatedly called out Biden for delaying an increase his administration touted in the weeks after he took office.

"The numbers are a blatant betrayal of Mr. Biden's public commitment, and they have real-world impacts," The Washington Post editorial board wrote on Wednesday, noting that pregnant women seeking refuge may soon be unable to fly and clearances for other refugees may also expire before the delay ends. "In the meantime, the suffering will only deepen for Iraqis who assisted U.S. Special Operations forces, Syrians fleeing civil war's devastation, and Somalis, Congolese and others eager to build new lives after having escaped the world's most shattered places… The optics are bad enough. The actual costs, in real distress and suffering, are incalculable."

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"This is not, presumably, what most Americans thought they were getting when they elected Biden," wrote Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, adding that the numbers suggest the "most anti-refugee president in modern history may not be Donald Trump. Right now, it's looking like Joe Biden."

HBO host John Oliver also excoriated Biden over the delay on Sunday, slamming the White House for failing to provide a "straight answer from this administration on why" and leaving hundreds of eligible refugees "beholden to Trump's low admission ceiling and bullshit racist rules."

"For Biden, this is actually really simple… He just needs to sign a piece of paper," he said. "And for a guy who clearly wanted to be the person who restored the soul of America, it is past time to for him to look deep into his own, pick up a fucking pen, and do the right thing."


Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is a staff writer at Salon. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

Tips/Email: iderysh@salon.com Twitter: @IgorDerysh

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Aggregate Donald Trump Immigration Joe Biden Politics Refugees