Joe Biden is raising the United States’ refugee admissions cap to 62,500 for this fiscal year after refugee advocates slammed the US president last month for walking back an earlier pledge to increase the limit.
In a statement on Monday, Biden said the new cap would “reinforce efforts that are already underway to expand the United States’ capacity to admit refugees”, as well as help his administration reach its stated goal of admitting 125,000 refugees in the 2022 fiscal year.
“This erases the historically low number set by the previous administration of 15,000, which did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees,” Biden’s statement reads.
Donald Trump had set the US refugee admissions cap at 15,000 – a historic low – as well as put additional restrictions in place that narrowed the criteria for resettlement in the country.
In February, just weeks after he took office, Biden had promised to raise the admissions cap to 62,500 for the 2021 fiscal year, which runs until the end of September.
But the US president went back on that commitment last month, saying his administration would leave the Trump-era cap in place for the time being.
That announcement drew the ire of refugee advocates as well as members of Biden’s own Democratic Party, who demanded he immediately raise the cap to allow refugees in dire need of protection to come to the US.
Amid the flurry of criticism, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would revisit the question with an eye towards setting a “final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15”.
The Biden administration had said Trump gutted the refugee resettlement system and that it would take time to rebuild it. In his statement on Monday, Biden said, “The sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year.”
However, he added: “We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years. It will take some time, but that work is already under way.”
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) said in a report in April that without raising the cap, Biden was on track to admit the fewest refugees this year of any US president in history.
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Washington, DC, said refugee resettlement is done on a geographical basis, with regions given a specific number of slots.
Hanna said it was important to note Biden said the US may not reach the 62,500 cap due to staffing shortages caused by “the ravages of the previous administration”. But Biden also said he plans to increase the limit to 125,000 next year.
“So on the one level, President Biden [is] making a massive U-turn here in terms of his policy on refugees returning, at the other hand saying it may not be achievable because of staff shortages, and finally, saying that this cap is going to increase in the next 12 months,” Hanna reported.
‘Good for refugees’
Refugee advocates welcomed Biden’s announcement on Monday, with IRC President and CEO David Miliband calling the decision “good for America and good for refugees”.
“We welcome the bold steps to build back refugee protection after four years of deeply damaging policy,” Miliband said in a statement.
GOOD NEWS: President Biden has raised refugee admissions to 62,500 for FY21. 👏
We stand for a US, and world, that makes #RefugeesWelcome—always. This announcement doesn't not just fulfil a promise; it's a step towards rebuilding America's welcome. More: https://t.co/iAgIT8gw8m pic.twitter.com/MvfKyPFei2
— IRC – International Rescue Committee (@RESCUEorg) May 3, 2021
“The road to fully rebuild is long, and we will continue to face challenges, but at the IRC we are ready to roll our sleeves up and partner with the administration to return America to a position of global leadership on refugee protection.”
US refugee resettlement agencies had said last month that they were prepared to begin the process of bringing refugees into the country – but they were just waiting for Biden to sign a presidential determination to officially raise the cap and get things moving again.
“It’s one signature that we need that separates all these people from safety,” Erol Kekic, director of the immigration and refugee programme at Church World Service (CWS), one of the nine national refugee resettlement agencies in the US, told Al Jazeera at that time.
On Monday, CWS welcomed Biden’s decision to raise the admissions cap, which it said would “allow thousands of screened refugees to finally be resettled in the United States to join family members, escape peril, and build new lives in safety”.
“This follows a months-long delay in finalizing an increased admissions goal, which jeopardized the safety of many and had already caused irreparable damage to thousands of refugees who were already approved for resettlement,” the group added in a statement.