The question now for Mr. Biden is simple: Will he muster the courage of his convictions?
On Friday the evidence was mixed. The White House first announced it would retain the Trump administration’s historically low cap on refugee resettlements in the current fiscal year, albeit with a different mix of countries of origin. Then, after scathing criticism from fellow Democrats, the administration said a higher, unspecified cap would be announced next month.
Even with that reversal, officials acknowledged that the president’s original commitment upon taking office, to increase the current year’s ceiling on refugee admissions to 62,500 from President Donald Trump’s paltry 15,000, is a dead letter. Nor was there any sign that Mr. Biden would make good on his promise to raise that target to 125,000 in the next fiscal year, starting Oct. 1, let alone his stated goal to ramp up resettlements after that.
The president would do well to re-read his own campaign’s clear-eyed pronouncements on the subject. They correctly slammed Mr. Trump for decimating America’s decades-long leadership on refugees, whose admissions to this country were slashed by more than 75 percent in four years, to fewer than 12,000 in fiscal 2020. “We cannot mobilize other countries to meet their humanitarian obligations if we are not ourselves upholding our cherished democratic values and firmly rejecting Trump’s nativist rhetoric and actions,” said the Biden campaign statement on refugees.
While the administration bumbles its way toward a policy, real lives are at stake. Some 33,000 refugees in Africa, the Mideast and elsewhere, all of them having passed rigorous screening by the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies over the course of months or years, are stuck in camps where they await flights to the United States. They see this country as a beacon, just as Mr. Biden insisted it is.
It’s difficult to believe that the president and his top officials did not realize their immigration policies, refugee admissions among them, would galvanize Republican opportunism and demagoguery. Perhaps they failed to anticipate the scale of unaccompanied Central American minors and families who would cross the border seeking asylum this spring. Maybe they are worried that GOP attacks, conflating that wave of asylum-seekers with refugees, would further imperil the Democratic congressional majorities in next year’s midterm elections, despite Mr. Biden’s own healthy standing in the polls.
In any event, the president’s retreat on refugees is a danger sign. It looks like weakness; it smacks of spinelessness. Time will tell whether it is a short-term tactical maneuver or a more basic lack of resolve in the face of political headwinds. Here’s hoping it is the former.