Biden harbored concerns about what the sharp increase in migrants at the southern border meant for the government’s capacity to handle an influx of refugees from elsewhere, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private deliberations. In the end, the president’s own misgivings fueled the decision more than anything else, the people said.
The president was particularly frustrated by the government’s struggle to deal with unaccompanied minors at the border and became increasingly concerned about the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s response to the crisis, the people said. The unit, housed at the Department of Health and Human Services, has responsibility for both unaccompanied minors at the border and the separate group of foreigners seeking refugee status due to persecution, war or oppression at home.
Blinken, who has spoken often of his own family’s history as refugees, appealed personally to Biden in early March after his department had submitted its declaration in support of dramatically raising the refugee cap from the historically low level set by President Donald Trump.
But Biden wavered for two months on what to do before ultimately rebuffing Blinken and other top national security officials.
Biden’s concerns help explain last week’s mess: The White House announced it was maintaining Trump’s cap, then abruptly reversed itself, insisting it had been misunderstood. Those concerns are also likely to inform where the president lands with a revised figure for refugee admissions. The botched policy rollout, which drew fierce complaints from congressional Democrats and refugee advocacy organizations, was unusual for a White House that has prided itself on discipline and little drama.
The internal tensions underscore the extent to which Biden and his administration have struggled to redefine U.S. refugee policy. Allies and advocates say it exposed a faulty connection between the crisis at the southern border and the refugee program, and was a political miscalculation. The program has historically drawn bipartisan support for a system designed to welcome people from war-torn and troubled countries, but the politics became more polarized during Trump’s presidency.
The White House first announced Friday that Biden would keep in place the Trump-era cap of 15,000 refugees — a stark reversal from the much higher target the Biden administration previously put forward. The move prompted swift blowback, despite some private assurances inside the White House that it would be acceptable, according to one of the people familiar with the matter. After the backlash, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would announce a new cap by May 15 that would increase the number of refugees admitted into the country, but it was “unlikely” to meet Biden’s initial goal of 62,500 refugees.
Biden’s decision has perplexed Democrats and refugee advocacy organizations, who point to talk early in his presidency of “moral leadership on refugee issues” and an executive order to rebuild the refugee admissions program.
“Never before in history has a president come into office on the refugee issue so energized until Trump and then Biden,” said Mark Hetfield, the president of HIAS, a Jewish refugee resettlement organization. “Of course, they were energized in very different ways. Biden was adamant about restarting the refugee program so we can act in accordance with American values.”
But then, Hetfield said, “the wheels fell off.”
As a candidate, Biden pledged to increase the number of refugees allowed into the country. In September, his campaign held a fundraiser with Blinken, Rep. Filemon Vela, (D-Tex.), and Yasir Dhannoon, an Iraqi refugee, for a conversation titled, “U.S. Global Leadership for Refugees: Priorities for a Biden Administration.”
In October, the Penn Biden Center, an independent center at the University of Pennsylvania stocked with former Biden aides, released a 62-page report outlining a road map for a possible new presidential administration that sought to “significantly increase refugee admissions levels.” The report set the goal of admitting at least 125,000 refugees by 2022 and states a new administration would be able to admit at least 50,000 refugees by the end of 2021 with “early and decisive actions.”
The report, led in part by Ariana Berengaut, a former top aide to Blinken and now a senior adviser to Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, reads as a blueprint for much of the Biden administration’s early actions to restore the country’s refugee program.
On Feb. 4, Biden affirmed his commitment to restoring the refugee program in a speech at the State Department and signed an executive order to rebuild the admissions program. He said the order would position the United States to raise the cap to 125,000 people for the 2022 fiscal year. The next week, the State Department sent its report to Congress, detailing how the administration wanted to raise the refugee cap to 62,500 for the rest of this fiscal year.
But the report was followed by weeks of silence from the president.
For two months, Biden shunted precedent and did not quickly sign the directive. Refugee advocates pressed the administration on Biden’s inaction, and the State Department had to cancel flights it had booked to bring approved refugees to the country.
“Given the State Department’s key role in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and President Biden’s own deep commitment to it, it should come as no surprise that Secretary Blinken has had opportunities to discuss repairing and strengthening it with the President,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. “Secretary Blinken shares the President’s deep and enduring commitment to the refugee program and America’s broader humanitarian leadership.”
A senior State Department official declined to comment on the specifics of Blinken’s conversations with Biden but said the secretary did not try to pressure the president on the refugee issue.
Biden’s delay coincided with the growing crisis at the border, as the administration struggled to respond to the increase in minors seeking asylum. But, Psaki vowed the two issues were unrelated.
“No, no, it’s not related to that,” she said at an April 1 press briefing. “No.”
Then, on Saturday, when Biden was asked about the refugee cap, he said the two issues were directly connected.
“We’re going to increase the number,” he said. “The problem was that the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up on the border with young people. We couldn’t do two things at once. But now we are going to increase the number.”
In an Oval Office meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Tuesday, Biden raised the issue, saying his administration would indeed allow in more refugees than initially allotted, although he did not give a timeline, attendees said.
“I'm fairly confident that they will” raise the cap, said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). “And it may not be the original level that was announced to, but I think it will be significant and we’ll be on our way towards eventually raising it to where we want.”
White House officials are also seeking to keep an open dialogue with refugee advocates at the resettlement agencies that work with the government, many of whom are fuming over the shifting positions and what they see as poor excuses for them.
On Wednesday, White House officials are aiming to hold another conversation with the advocates, whose most pressing question is what number the administration will raise the refugee cap to for the remainder of the fiscal year.
They also want Biden to stick to his February pledge of raising the cap for the following fiscal year, which starts in October. Psaki said Monday that the president “remains committed to the aspirational goal” of 125,000 for the next fiscal year.
“What does that say to immigrants across this country who were made a lot of promises?” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a liberal administration ally who said the administration was doing a “phenomenal job” before adding “I also need to say when I think that we've made a misstep and I think this was a big misstep.”
Some of the Democratic anger that erupted on Friday was still fresh this week and was beginning to extend into how the White House has navigated the broader politics of immigration. Privately, one Democrat closely monitoring the situation vented frustration about Biden using the word “crisis” over the weekend to describe the situation on the border, a word that administration officials had strained to avoid. Activists and party leaders had defended the White House strategy for months, only to see the president use the term to justify his conduct on the refugee program, the Democrat bemoaned.
At the White House this week, Psaki has struggled to explain the administration’s shifting positions and why it backtracked from its initial announcement Friday morning that it was leaving the cap for the current fiscal year unchanged.
“In the morning we said, actually, and with the information we put out, was that once we reach 15,000, we will raise it,” Psaki said Monday, insisting there had been no change in policy.
But what the initial White House announcement in fact said was that it was keeping the cap at 15,000 and that “we are prepared to consult with Congress should we need to increase the number of admissions to further address the unforeseen emergency situation.”
When asked why the administration was not likely to meet its stated goal of 62,500 refugees, Psaki pointed to an administration simultaneously dealing with an increase in unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the border and the last administration gutting the federal systems involved in processing refugees.
“The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees — while there have been different pots of money and different personnel — has both the resettling of refugees as well as unaccompanied children,” she said. “There are questions and have been assessments about reprogramming of funds and how we can address both at the same time. And certainly, that ability and ensuring we can do that effectively has been on the president’s mind.”
But refugee advocates have dismissed the White House’s explanation. While it’s true that the refugee resettlement office has the task of helping resettle both unaccompanied children and refugees post-arrival, “when it comes to the actual processing of refugees, that funding is with the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration,” Jenny Yang, vice president for advocacy and policy at World Relief, a resettlement agency working with the government, wrote in an email.
“The State Department is the agency that sets the refugee ceiling, and then processes the refugees. Whatever the President sets as the refugee ceiling, the administration then budgets around that, so to say that they can’t raise the ceiling when they themselves have the authority to set the budget is faulty reasoning,” Yang wrote.