President Joe Biden on Friday signed an emergency determination that officials said would speed refugee admissions to the U.S., but he did not immediately lift his predecessor's historically low cap of 15,000 refugees for this year.
Biden, instead, is adjusting the allocation limits set by former President Donald Trump, which officials said have been the driving factor in limiting refugee admissions. The new allocations provide more slots for refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Central America and lift Trump's restrictions on resettlements from Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Since the fiscal year began on Oct. 1, just over 2,000 refugees have been resettled in the U.S. A senior administration official said Biden's new allocations, formalized in an emergency presidential determination, could result in speedier admissions of already screened and vetted refugees in a manner of days.
Refugee resettlement agencies applauded the move to speed admissions and provide more slots but were disheartened that Biden is for now keeping the cap set by Trump.
“It sends an important message to make it higher and now Biden will still be presiding over and has essentially put his stamp of approval on the lowest refugee admissions cap in history at time of global crisis," said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, a Maryland-based Jewish nonprofit that is one of nine agencies that resettles refugees in the U.S.
Biden presented a plan to Congress two months ago to raise the ceiling on admissions to 62,500 and to eliminate restrictions imposed by Trump that have disqualified a significant number of refugees, including those fleeing war.
But Biden has not issued a presidential determination since his administration notified Congress, as required by law. The action does not require congressional approval and past presidents have issued such presidential determinations that set the cap on refugee admissions shortly after the notification to Congress.
The Biden administration has given no explanation as to why the president has kept the refugee admissions cap.
Biden has pledged to raise the refugee cap for the next fiscal year to 125,000 and signaled he would try to make a “down payment” on that this year, but acknowledged it wouldn't be easy.
“It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do,” Biden said in February at the State Department.
The White House said it intends to use all 15,000 slots under the existing cap. The senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, said that Biden also would raise the current year cap if needed, but that the priority was moving to adjust from which areas refugees would be admitted.
Under Biden's new allocation, about 7,000 slots are reserved for refugees from Africa, 1,000 from East Asia, 1,500 from Europe and Central Asia, 3,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 1,500 from the Near East and South Asia and a reserve of about 1,000 slots to be used as needed.
The State Department, which coordinates flights with resettlement agencies, booked 715 refugees to come to the United States with the anticipation that Biden would have acted by March, but those flights were canceled since the refugees were not eligible under Trump’s rules, according to resettlement agencies.
Most of the refugees are from Africa and fleeing armed conflict or political persecution. Trump limited most spots for people fleeing religious persecution, Iraqis who have assisted U.S. forces there, and people from Central America’s Northern Triangle.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the delay in Biden acting was because “It took us some time to see and evaluate how ineffective, or how trashed in some ways the refugee processing system had become, and so we had to rebuild some of those muscles and put it back in place.”
Officials also cited the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but said the expanding vaccination and testing campaigns are making it easier to process new refugee admissions.
Another concern has been the record pace of unaccompanied migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, which has drawn in many of the resources that would go to vetting, processing and resettling refugees in the U.S.
“It is a factor," said Psaki, noting that the Office of Refugee Resettlement "does management and has personnel working on both issues and so we have to ensure that there is capacity and ability to manage both.”