More than two months later, Biden has not made good on his vow. He has yet to sign a directive that would lift the cap for the next fiscal year or enact more-immediate changes to the Trump limits. His advisers have provided little public clarity on why, angering many human rights advocates who say the delay is inflicting growing harm on refugees desperate to take flight to the United States.
They cite canceled flights for refugees ready to travel, including a pregnant mother who missed the window to fly; a family who sold its belongings in preparation to come, only to be left in limbo; and refugees from African and majority-Muslim countries still constrained by President Donald Trump’s restrictive policies.
People close to the White House’s decision-making attribute the delay to several factors. Some point to the administration’s ongoing struggles to contain a massive increase in migrants arriving at the southern border, saying they detect political concerns from the White House about expanding the refugee program at a moment when there is increasing pressure on Biden to be tougher on immigration and border security.
“What’s missing is the political will of the president,” said Jenny Yang, vice president for advocacy and policy at World Relief, one of a handful of resettlement agencies working with the government. The result, Yang said, is that “the program is effectively operating as if President Trump were still in office.”
The refugee program, aimed at helping those facing serious danger in their home countries, is independent of the immigration system at the border, requiring a rigorous screening process before travel to the United States. But some in Biden’s orbit believe that nuance is lost on the public, particularly with conservative critics eager to portray Biden as soft on immigration.
“Unfortunately, I think it shows that President Trump may have been effective in conflating refugee resettlements and the asylum program,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, another resettlement agency working with the government. She said there “is no substantive reason” why Trump’s directive should remain in place, given that changing it is “not a herculean task” for Biden.
Others close to the process played down the role of politics, saying that pressing priorities such as Iran and Afghanistan have left Biden’s State Department team, which handles refugee issues, with limited bandwidth. Combating the coronavirus pandemic and pushing a sweeping infrastructure bill have also commanded much of the administration’s attention.
White House officials said a new directive — known formally as a presidential determination — is being considered and that Biden still sees it as a priority. They said it takes time to reassemble a refugee system that was gutted by Trump.
But they declined to provide a timetable of when Biden would put pen to paper. “It’s an issue he remains committed to,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week.
Biden’s careful posture underscores the broader caution with which he and his advisers are approaching immigration. Keenly aware of how the issue has sparked impassioned divisions in recent years, Biden, who ran as a unifier, did not emphasize it as a candidate. As president, he and his aides have treaded lightly, wary of inflaming a polarizing debate that could threaten to his appeal to a broad swath of voters.
At the same time, Biden has felt pressure from immigration activists and liberal lawmakers to embrace more-humane policies, particularly after four years of hard-line measures from the Trump administration. He has tried to strike a balance between these competing demands, struggling at times to satisfy both.
But that balancing act comes at a cost to many people fleeing dire circumstances abroad, lawmakers and officials at resettlement agencies said.
Some of the most fervent concern has come from Democrats in the House. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who lived in a refugee camp in Kenya as a child after her family fled a civil war in Somalia, warned in a recent statement that “We cannot and we must not fall victims to politics of fear and hatred that drives the far-right.”
Biden, she said, “must follow through on his promise.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in India, said she brought up the topic at a recent White House meeting and got the impression that Biden’s directive was “very close to being done.”
But that didn’t ease her worries. “I’m definitely concerned,” she said. “Refugees are in a particularly vulnerable situation, waiting to get their flights and waiting to be able to get out of camps and really difficult situations.”
The U.S. refugee program is aimed at people displaced from their countries due to severe conditions such as genocide, civil war and other political, religious or racial persecution. Admission is a multistep process that begins outside the United States. This is in contrast to the asylum program, which allows migrants to apply upon arriving at the border.
Presidents have considerable latitude in handling refugee programs. At the time of Biden’s Feb. 4 speech, the border surge had begun but had not yet become a national issue drawing criticism from Democrats and Republicans.
In the speech, the president announced that he was signing an executive order to “begin the hard work of restoring our refugee admissions program.” Taking an implicit jab at Trump, he added, “It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged.”
Trump had set a historically low limit of 15,000 refugees for the current fiscal year. His directive also barred refugees from “certain high-risk areas of terrorist presence or control, including Somalia, Syria, and Yemen,” with a few exceptions.
Biden announced that he would raise the annual cap on refugee admission to 125,000 for the first full fiscal year of his administration, which begins in October. He informed Congress that his target for the current fiscal year was 62,500.
But he never signed a new presidential determination, a decision that has left Trump’s directive in place. Now, Biden is on pace to accept the fewest refugees this year of any modern president, according to a report the International Rescue Committee released last week. The Biden administration has admitted only 2,050 refugees at the halfway point of this fiscal year, according to the nonprofit organization's report.
The report says Biden’s inaction means “tens of thousands of already-cleared refugees remain barred from resettlement and over 700 resettlement flights have been cancelled.”
Absent a reversal of Trump-era restrictions, most refugees from civil war-ravaged Syria, who have the highest resettlement needs according to the report, do not have a chance of coming to the U.S. Refugees from other Muslim countries are also being hit hard by current rules, according to the report, which added that Biden could be more proactive about welcoming refugees from Latin America.
Biden’s initial announcement quickly drew some critical statements from Republicans. Increasing the caps “will put American jobs and safety at risk during a pandemic,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a potential 2024 presidential candidate.
The administration’s quiet deferral is confounding senior Democrats in the Senate, who say that while they believe Biden’s commitment to expanding the nation’s refugee policy is genuine, they have not received a clear explanation on why he hasn’t signed presidential determination.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), whose panel is required by law to be notified of refugee levels, said he has heard that there were concerns in the White House about formally lifting the refugee cap while the administration was managing a separate crisis at the border.
But he added, “I cannot explain why there has been a delay in the actual order.”
While the action is pending, the administration is simultaneously exploring ways of adjusting the refugee program.
Federal agencies that administer it are looking at how to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of screening and vetting; exploring new technologies and interview processes; and directing resources toward expanding the program's reach in areas of concerns such as Central America, according to the White House.
Those steps have not quelled the impatience in the party. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in an interview that he had raised the issue with State Department officials this week. Their response, according to Menendez: “We hear you. And we’re going to follow the law.”
Menendez ascribed the delay to the other tasks the White House is juggling. The senator has privately discussed the matter with Victoria Nuland, a veteran diplomat who has been nominated to be undersecretary of state for political affairs. If necessary, Menendez said he will raise the delay in her public confirmation hearing Thursday.
Other Democrats urged patience. “I am confident that President Biden’s commitment to welcoming refugees, to supporting refugee services, is dramatically different from his predecessor,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), Biden’s closest Senate ally, who sits on both the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. “I look forward to continuing to work closely with the administration to ensure that we are providing the kind of support that you need for refugee resettlement, to restart at a responsible and robust number.”
The Biden administration has also been slow to fill key posts at the State Department — with the Senate confirming Wendy Sherman, the second-ranking State official, Tuesday evening — which some said was probably aggravating the delay.
“My sense is that they are not staffed up in some of the agencies necessary to carry out these orders,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Some White House allies find the president’s delay perplexing because the refugee program has attracted bipartisan support in recent years. Even some of the Republicans who have been critical of Biden’s handling of the border have called for raising the refugee cap to expand the legal pathways for immigrants to come to the United States.
“The refugee program is much more of an orderly and legal process that is entirely distinct” from the situation at the border, said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “I would increase the refugees cap from where it was in the Trump years, and I would make the asylum system work as it should.”