After Refugee Directive Sparks Backlash, White House Vows to Increase Cap in May

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki removes her face covering as she arrives for the daily press briefing at the White House on March 29, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

After Refugee Directive Sparks Backlash, White House Vows to Increase Cap in May

"As a candidate, Biden promised humanity and relief for refugees fleeing persecution," said an ACLU attorney. "We will be watching to see if President Biden fulfills his promises.”

After President Joe Biden on Friday came under fire from human rights advocates and progressive lawmakers for signing a directive to retain the historically low 15,000-person refugee cap imposed by former President Donald Trump, the White House issued a statement that appeared to walk back Biden's widely criticized move.

"We are devastated that Biden continues to delay his promise to all the refugees fearing for their lives."
--Anahita Panahi, CRIS

"The president's directive today has been the subject of some confusion," said a statement from White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki late Friday. "Last week, he sent to Congress his budget for the fiscal year starting in October 2021, which honors his commitment."

"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 October 1," Psaki said. "Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely."

"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," she added. "With that done, we expect the president to set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15."

As Common Dreams reported earlier Friday, sources within the administration claimed the decision to keep the cap in place related to concerns about the recent rise in crossings at the southern border. Reporters and advocates framed Psaki's statement as a shift prompted by widespread criticism from rights groups and lawmakers.

"This is unacceptable," Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), had tweeted of the directive Friday ahead of the press secretary's clarification.

"You made a promise and thousands of refugees are depending on you," Pocan reminded the president. "We can and must do better than Donald Trump."

Manar Waheed, ACLU senior legislative and advocacy counsel, initially said that "today's news is a devastating blow to Black and Brown immigrants who are fleeing persecution and seeking refuge--and have been for years--only to see their hopes destroyed by an administration that promised to do better."

In response to Psaki's remarks, Waheed added that "as a candidate, Biden promised humanity and relief for refugees fleeing persecution. We will be watching to see if President Biden fulfills his promises."

"My heart and thoughts go to all refugees around the world who are forced to wait another month for the administration to act," said Jacqueline Kifuko, refugee organizer at Community Refugee & Immigration Services (CRIS). "As a former refugee, I truly understand how... this kind of news can affect the mental state of individuals already in the process of resettlement, particularly those coming to the U.S. I urge the Biden administration to honor its promise to the refugee community as soon as possible."

Anahita Panahi, the Opportunity for All campaign co-chair at CRIS, said that "we are devastated that Biden continues to delay his promise to all the refugees fearing for their lives. The U.S. has a duty to provide refuge for those fleeing religious or political persecution and war-torn countries. This is unacceptable."

Kayo Beshir of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Coalition similarly said that "I am devastated by Biden's delay in fulfilling his promise."

"As a former refugee and a refugee organizer that turned out many former refugees to go out and vote this past election, I am extremely disappointed by this administration's decision to delay the presidential determination," Beshir added. "This is truly a blow to my community that envisioned this would be an administration to reverse the policies of the previous administration that pushed to limit immigration."

Psaki's statement came as RAICES, the largest immigration legal services nonprofit in Texas, was drafting a Twitter thread blasting Biden's failure to keep his promise and calling on the president to "rebuild refugee resettlement infrastructure as soon as possible, so that the U.S. can increase these admissions numbers immediately."

Acknowledging the update from the administration, the group declared that "our demand still stands."

"Such political cowardice. Full stop," Kelsey P. Norman, an author on migration and fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute, had tweeted about the directive.

"And now they're backtracking," Norman added Friday evening. "Thank you to all the groups and individuals who pushed back on this!"

While maintaining pressure on the administration to go further, some advocates also acknowledged the positive impacts of the new directive.

"Time and again, President Biden has shared his commitment to reversing the bigoted, anti-Muslim policies of the Trump administration. Specifically, he made a commitment during the campaign to restore refugee admissions, but today he fell short," said Muslim Advocates special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry Madihha Ahussain.

"The Trump administration weaponized immigration policies to drive anti-Muslim sentiment across the country," Ahussain said. "Trump enacted a Muslim ban and dropped refugee admissions to their lowest levels in history. We cannot allow these discriminatory policies that have left a stain on our country to stay in place."

"While today's announcement will lift restrictions on resettlement for some Muslims, such as those from Syria, who were vilified by the last administration, that is simply not enough," she added. "We applaud the promises made by this administration for a more humane and pluralist immigration policy. We urge him to stay true to those promises."

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