Biden walks back pledge to keep Trump's lowest-ever refugee cap

U.S. President Joe Biden signs an executive order on immigration on Feb. 2 at the White House. Photo by: Adam Schultz / Official White House Photo

After months of unexplained delays, U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday signed the Emergency Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions to keep the country’s refugee admissions cap at the historic low of 15,000 set by former President Donald Trump — but hours later, he vowed to increase the figure by May.

The abrupt reversal came after fierce blowback from NGOs upset at the Biden administration's waffling on a formerly bipartisan, noncontroversial program that became politicized under Trump. White House press secretary Jen Psaki released a statement early Friday evening saying the directive had “been the subject of some confusion” and was not intended to be Biden’s final determination.

“Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely,” Psaki said of the number of refugees Biden had originally pledged to resettle this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. She added that the emergency determination was only meant to reverse some Trump-era restrictions barring refugees from certain countries.

There are currently more than 100,000 refugees waiting for resettlement, with 35,000 already approved for travel to the U.S. It is still unclear when those people will be able to arrive.

“It’s heartbreaking for the refugees who have gone through months and months and months of vetting and checks, sold all their possessions, anticipating a flight to the U.S. to finally have a chance to rebuild their life — and now they’re stuck in further limbo,” said Noah Gottschalk, global policy lead at Oxfam America.

As of March — halfway through the fiscal year — only 2,050 refugees had been resettled, according to the State Department.

For months, refugee advocacy organizations and members of Congress have sought answers from the Biden administration on the reason for his delay in signing a refugee determination. In February, Biden made his commitment to raising the cap on the refugee resettlement program for the current fiscal year to 62,500. He then pledged to increase it further to 125,000 during fiscal year 2022.

“The entire reason that they’re being resettled is because they’re not safe to be in the places that they’re in. … [So this decision] forces them to stay in unsafe places even longer.”

— Noah Gottschalk, global policy lead, Oxfam America

The modern refugee resettlement program was created in 1980 and has since resettled over 3 million people in the U.S. Before 2018, the refugee admissions goal averaged 95,000 people each year. There are nine U.S. resettlement agencies, six of which are faith-based.

According to Amnesty International, over 700 refugees who had been set to travel had their flights canceled as they awaited Biden’s action over the last several months.

“What normally happens when people can’t travel is all the time-bound medical and security checks that they go through start to expire, and then they have to go through those checks all over again,” Gottschalk said. “That only further delays their travel and further keeps them in harm's way. The entire reason that they’re being resettled is because they’re not safe to be in the places that they’re in. And so what this decision does is it forces them to stay in unsafe places even longer and completely unnecessarily.”

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, an estimated 1.4 million people worldwide are in need of resettlement in 2021. Low-income countries host an estimated 85% of refugees, and as of the end of 2019, there were 26 million refugees worldwide. Nearly 80 million people were forcibly displaced at that time — a record high.

Trump had restricted refugee resettlement to specific groups, such as those escaping religious persecution and Iraqis who have helped the U.S. Biden’s determination removes those regulations and allocates 7,000 slots for people from Africa; 1,000 for East Asia; 1,500 for Europe and Central Asia; 3,000 for Latin America and the Caribbean; and 1,500 for the Near East and South Asia. An additional 1,000 slots are unallocated and can be used by the secretary of state as need arises.

The determination states that if the 15,000 cap is met before the end of the fiscal year, “a subsequent Presidential Determination may be issued to increase admissions, as appropriate.”

Joan Rosenhauer, executive director at Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, said she is concerned about the administration’s ability to scale up a refugee resettlement program that was decimated under Trump if there isn’t a concerted effort to increase capacity as soon as possible.

Would Biden 'rebuild the old program' to reduce Northern Triangle migration?

According to his campaign website, Biden planned to “renew a robust commitment to U.S. leadership in the region,” developing a four-year, $4 billion regional strategy to address migration drivers in Central America.

On Thursday, her organization held a virtual lobbying day with a bipartisan group of congressional offices in support of the Guaranteed Refugee Admission Ceiling Enhancement Act, which would set 125,000 as the minimum number of refugees a president can decide to resettle. An administration would be able to admit a higher number at its discretion, but the bill would prohibit admitting fewer.

In her confirmation hearing Thursday before Biden’s announcement was made, Uzra Zeya, his nominee for undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights — who would oversee the bureau that manages the refugee resettlement program, if confirmed — said she supported raising the cap to 125,000 for fiscal year 2022.

“As a nominee, I’m not privy to policy discussions that are underway, but I know that the president is committed to regrowing this program and doing it in the most effective, orderly, and humane way possible,” Zeya told Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine when questioned about the refugee determination delay. “If confirmed, I will do everything in my power to make this a reality.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.