White House reverses course on refugee cap

The White House Friday reversed course on refugee admissions, after an earlier announcement maintaining a controversial Trump-era refugee cap was met with disdain by Democrats and immigration activists.

Following a day of blowback from Democrats, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced Biden would set a new, higher ceiling in May after initially saying it would keep the current 15,000 limit. 

The initial decision had led to widespread complaints from Democratic lawmakers and groups representing refugees, who had already been urging Biden to lift the ceiling put in place by former President Trump. 

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who came to the United States as a refugee, called it "shameful."

Psaki's statement late Friday attempted to walk back the controversial announcement.

It said that Biden’s directive earlier Friday had been the subject of “some confusion,” and that while it would be difficult to meet Biden's goal of allowing 62,500 refugees into the country this year because of changes imposed by Trump, it would seek to announce a higher ceiling than 15,000 in May.

“For the past few weeks, he has been consulting with his advisors to determine what number of refugees could realistically be admitted to the United States between now and October 1. Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely,” Psaki said.
“While finalizing that determination, the President was urged to take immediate action to reverse the Trump policy that banned refugees from many key regions, to enable flights from those regions to begin within days; today’s order did that,” the statement continued. “With that done, we expect the President to set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15.”

The reversal was initially well-received by Democrats critical of the refugee cap, but the White House's messaging blunder was not entirely overlooked.

"While I’m heartened to learn that  @POTUS still intends to increase the number of refugee admissions, I urge the admin. to move with urgency and communicate with clarity," wrote Rep. VerĂ³nica Escobar (D-Texas) on Twitter.

The earlier announcement was doubly vexing to Democrats, both because it maintained a controversial Trump-era policy, and because it caught key Capitol Hill allies off guard.

Omar, a former beneficiary of the refugee program, had sent a letter on the matter to Biden earlier Friday, lobbying for a raised refugee cap.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), was also blindsided by the White House announcement after sending his own written plea on the matter, which became a letter of rebuke after the administration's action.

"Failing to issue a new Determination undermines your declared purpose to reverse your predecessor’s refugee policies and to rebuild the Refugee Admissions Program to a target of 125,000 people in FY22, and threatens U.S. leadership on forced migration," Menendez wrote.

Still, some Democrats celebrated the administration's flexibility after a day of intense friendly fire.

"Glad this decision was made, we are better country for it, it is a better administration because of it," said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.).

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