Biden to announce new increased US refugee cap by May 15

US president removes discriminatory policies in new order but receives backlash over keeping current levels

FILE - In this Feb. 12, 2021 file photo, migrants and refugees from different African nationalities wait for assistance aboard an overcrowded wooden boat, as aid workers of the Spanish NGO Open Arms approach them in the Mediterranean Sea, international waters, at 122 miles off the Libyan coast. The head of the U.N. refugee agency on Friday said he has urged Italy not to unnecessarily impede NGOs that operate migrant rescue ships in the central Mediterranean, as warmer weather is expected to bring the usual seasonal uptick in the departure of smugglers’ boats from Libya. Charity boats “fill an important void” in the absence of collective EU efforts, Filippo Grandi told reporters after meeting a day earlier with Italian Premier Mario Draghi. (AP Photo/Bruno Thevenin)
Powered by automated translation

US President Joe Biden will announce an increased refugee acceptance cap by May 15 after receiving backlash over a new order to speed up resettlement and keep his predecessor Donald Trump's historic low cap, according to the White House.

"The president’s directive today has been the subject of some confusion," White House Press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement issued Friday afternoon.

Many responded to the initial news with surprise and anger, as it was a campaign promise of Mr Biden's to raise the cap and he had sent a plan to Congress for how his administration would boost acceptance numbers earlier in his presidency.

The current refugee admissions cap remains at 15,000, the lowest since the 1980 Refugee Act took effect in the US.

"Last week, he sent to Congress his budget for the fiscal year starting in October 2021, which honours his commitment," Ms Psaki said, in reference to Mr Biden's goal to raise resettlement levels to 125,000.

Mr Biden's order revised Mr Trump's limitations to allow for refugee acceptance to be available to all regions of the world and meet growing need in certain regions.

It referred to Myanmar, Hong Kong, the Chinese region of Xinjiang, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia, where a worsening conflict is taking place in Tigray, as new regions of need.

The order reserves 7,000 slots for refugees from Africa, 3,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 1,500 from Europe and Central Asia, 1,500 from the Near East and South Asia, 1,000 from East Asia, and another 1,000 reserved for people in need anywhere.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan says the Biden administration will use all 15,000 slots.

The order states that if all 15,000 slots are filled before the next fiscal year, "a subsequent presidential determination may be issued to increase admissions, as appropriate".

Still, some in Congress viewed the move as a failure to reverse record-low levels set by Mr Trump.

"By failing to sign an emergency presidential determination to lift Trump's historically low refugee cap, President Biden has broken his promise to restore our humanity," Pramila Jayapal, a member of the House of Representatives, said in a statement.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a representative from New York, called it "completely and utterly unacceptable".

In his first foreign policy speech at the US State Department in February, Mr Biden vowed to raise the refugee cap to 125,000 in the next fiscal year.

Mr Biden also hinted that he would possibly raise resettlement numbers during the current fiscal year as a "down payment on that commitment as soon as possible".

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote to Congress after the president's speech in February, further insinuating the Biden administration was going to raise resettlement numbers during the current fiscal year.

"I am eager to consult with Congress on the president’s plan to increase the fiscal year 2021 target significantly to address the dire refugee situation and to start the process of increasing the capacity of the programme to allow for higher annual refugee admissions targets in future fiscal years."

There were suggestions he would raise the cap to over 60,000 in the current fiscal year, but he never signed official paperwork that would put that into effect.

This proposal was well received on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

“The United States has a proud, bipartisan tradition of providing refugees protection through resettlement," Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said.

"In this time of great global need, the United States must demonstrate its robust commitment as a nation by resettling the world’s most vulnerable refugees."

Ms Psaki said in response to the swift backlash that Mr Biden had several conversations with advisers on how many refugees could be resettled in the time before the new fiscal year.

"Given the decimated refugee admissions programme we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely," she said in her statement.

"This is a time of unprecedented global need, and the US is still far from returning to its historic role of safe haven for the world's persecuted and most vulnerable."

The world is currently seeing the highest numbers of refugees and forcibly displaced people since the Second World War.

The UN refugee agency says there were at least 80 million forcibly displaced people recorded in mid-2020, of which 26.3 million are refugees.

“Failing to issue a new determination undermines your declared purpose to reverse your predecessor’s refugee policies and to rebuild the Refugee Admissions Programme to a target of 125,000 people in [fiscal year 2022], and threatens US leadership on forced migration," Mr Menendez said after the announcement.

US and international refugee groups praised Mr Biden's move to open acceptance to priority regions of the world but condemned keeping to current levels.

"The rightful erasure of discriminatory admissions categories does not dispense with the need for a higher number of refugees to be admitted," said David Miliband, president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee.

"The cap announced today does not take proper account of the fact that over 35,000 refugees have already been vetted and cleared for arrival, and over 100,000 are in the pipeline, often waiting years to be reunited with their loved ones. This is a time of unprecedented global need and the US is still far from returning to its historic role of safe haven for the world’s persecuted and most vulnerable."

The White House asserts that the US department behind refugee acceptance needs to be rebuilt after the Trump administration.

“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," Ms Psaki said in Friday's briefing.