The White House on Monday lifted the refugee cap to 62,500, ending a dizzying policy reversal by sticking with President Biden's original plan to dramatically increase from Trump-era levels the number of refugees who can be admitted into the U.S.
“Today, I am revising the United States’ annual refugee admissions cap to 62,500 for this fiscal year,” Biden said in a statement. “This erases the historically low number set by the previous administration of 15,000, which did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees.”
“It is important to take this action today to remove any lingering doubt in the minds of refugees around the world who have suffered so much, and who are anxiously waiting for their new lives to begin,” Biden added.
The administration announced in a separate memorandum that of the 62,500 slots being made available, 22,000 would be allocated to refugees coming from Africa, 13,000 to those from the Middle East and South Asia, 6,000 to those from East Asia, 4,000 to those from Europe and Central Asia, 5,000 to those from Latin America and the Caribbean and the remaining 12,500 would remain unallocated.
The president acknowledged that the country would not hit the cap this year, cautioning that it would take time to rebuild the infrastructure needed to take in and support tens of thousands of refugees as the U.S. has traditionally done. He expressed a commitment to setting the cap at 125,000 refugees during his first full fiscal year in office.
“The sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year,” he wrote in the announcement.
“We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years. It will take some time, but that work is already underway.”
The administration in February called for raising the refugee cap to 125,000 by the end of Biden's first year in office — a target that would require allowing 62,500 refugees fleeing persecution to enter the United States this fiscal year.
The high figure was set to be a dramatic turnaround from the Trump administration, whose 15,000 cap during its last three years in office was an all-time low.
But the Biden administration later hedged those figures as it was being hammered by Republicans for the influx of migrants at the southern border.
In an April letter to the State Department, the White House said it would keep the 15,000 limit set under former President Trump.
After a day of backlash, however, press secretary Jen Psaki walked that back slightly, suggesting only that Biden would be unable to meet his original goal and that the 15,000 was not final.
“For the past few weeks, he has been consulting with his advisers to determine what number of refugees could realistically be admitted to the United States between now and Oct. 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 at the time.
Biden’s decision to set the cap at 62,500 even as he conceded it would be unlikely to be met further raises questions about why the White House did not just raise the cap in the first place and not hit its ceiling.
Instead, the administration’s handling of the issue prompted a days-long news cycle where officials faced questions about the White House’s priorities and endured criticism from lawmakers who noted hundreds of refugees had already scheduled flights and gone through health and security screenings expecting the cap would be lifted sooner.
Psaki told reporters last month that Biden made the initial announcement about raising the cap in February, only to learn more about potential issues that would prevent him from being able to follow through.
Lawmakers who had pushed Biden on the issue in recent weeks, such as Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), were not given advance notice of the cap announcement on Monday.
“I am grateful that President Biden listened to our call to action and is building on the swift work he did during his first 100 days to begin reversing Trump’s all-out draconian assault on immigrants," Jayapal said in a statement. "While this new administration inherited a broken immigration system that was gutted and sabotaged by the previous president, it is on all of us to fix it — quickly. Today’s announcement is a critical step."
Biden nodded to the about-face in his official notification to the State Department, noting that those responsible for administering the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program said they could handle the increase in refugees while responding to other demands.
“Upon additional briefing and a more comprehensive presentation regarding the capacity of the executive departments ... and given the ongoing unforeseen emergency refugee situation, I now determine, consistent with my Administration's prior consultation with the Congress, that raising the number of admissions permissible for FY 2021 to 62,500 is justified by grave humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest,” Biden wrote.
The move was cheered by a number of humanitarian and immigration groups that had been lobbying Biden to keep his original promise.
“We are relieved that the Biden administration has, after a long and unnecessary delay, kept its promise to raise the refugee admissions cap for this year to 62,500,” Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America’s global policy lead, said in a statement.
“This announcement means the United States can finally begin to rebuild the life-saving refugee resettlement program and welcome the tens of thousands of people who have been left stranded by four years of the Trump administration's xenophobic policies and three months of the Biden administration's inaction.”