After a backlash from Democrats and human rights activists, the White House abruptly reversed course on Friday on the number of refugees it will allow into the United States, a reflection of President Biden’s continuing struggle with immigration policy.
At midday on Friday, the administration had said it would limit the number of refugees allowed into the United States this year to the historically low level of 15,000 set by the Trump administration, breaking an earlier pledge to greatly increase that number and let in more than 60,000 people fleeing war and persecution.
But that announcement drew immediate criticism from Democratic leaders. In a statement, Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the majority whip, called the administration’s admissions target “unacceptable.”
“Facing the greatest refugee crisis in our time, there is no reason to limit the number to 15,000,” Mr. Durbin said. “Say it ain’t so, President Joe.”
Just hours later, the White House put out a statement saying it expected to increase the cap next month. It did not comment when asked to specify the number.
The sudden shifts come as the United States struggles with a surge of unaccompanied children and teenagers at the Mexican border, and growing concerns that the increase has already overwhelmed the refugee branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, according to two senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the decision-making.
Mr. Biden had promised in February to raise the cap of 15,000 refugees set by the Trump administration — the lowest in the program’s history. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken notified Congress on Feb. 12 that the administration planned to allow up to 62,500 refugees to enter the country in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, citing “grave humanitarian concerns” around the world.
But for two months, Mr. Biden did not sign a presidential determination that would have allowed refugees to board flights to the United States.
Maintaining the Trump-era admissions level would leave thousands of refugees who have been approved to travel to the United States stranded in camps around the world. Roughly 35,000 refugees have already been vetted by the U.S. government and are prepared to travel to the United States.
While those who step on American soil are legally entitled to apply for asylum and can eventually appear before an immigration judge, refugees apply for protection overseas and are forced to clear multiple levels of vetting that can often take years.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement is responsible for sheltering migrant minors who cross the border but has a separate budget line for assisting refugees who come from overseas. The State Department also assists refugees for the first three months after their arrival.
Mr. Biden had previously made changes to the program. The Trump-era program gave priority to Iraqis who had worked for the U.S. military and people, primarily Christians, who were facing religious persecution. But the classification disqualified most other Muslim and African refugees. As a region, Africa has the most displaced people needing resettlement.
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