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'Lives Depend on It': House Democrats Push Biden to Immediately Lift Trump Refugee Cap

"We must keep our promises to people who have fled unthinkably brutal conditions in their home countries and live up to our ambition to provide them a safe haven."

People from El Salvador and Honduras who are seeking asylum in the United States sit outside the El Chaparral border crossing on February 19, 2021 in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

People from El Salvador and Honduras who are seeking asylum in the United States sit outside the El Chaparral border crossing on February 19, 2021 in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Led by Reps. Ilhan Omar, Pramila Jayapal, and Jan Schakowsky, more than 30 House Democrats sent a letter Friday demanding that President Joe Biden lift an inhumane Trump-era cap on refugee admissions without any further delay as the president's foot-dragging leaves vulnerable people around the world in danger.

"There is immense and growing urgency on this issue, for the many who have already been approved for resettlement, and for the unimaginable number of people who continue to hold out hope that they can one day rebuild their lives destroyed by climate, conflict, and repression," reads the new letter (pdf), which was also signed by Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.).

"We have it within our power to help alleviate this suffering, to reduce the burdens on overstretched countries in the Global South, and to be a refuge for families who have been forced into unthinkable conditions through no fault of their own."
—Letter

"Lives depend on it," the lawmakers added.

In February, Biden signed an executive order pledging to begin the process of raising the Fiscal Year 2022 refugee admissions cap to 125,000—up from the historically low limit of 15,000 set by the Trump administration. Biden also vowed to raise the admissions cap to 62,500 for the current fiscal year, which ends in September.

But Biden has yet to sign a presidential determination to solidify the proposed changes, a delay that has left Trump's restrictive and harmful policies in effect. Pressed repeatedly by reporters to explain the holdup, White House Press Secretary has refused to provide concrete answers while insisting that Biden remains committed to lifting the cap.

The group of 34 Democratic lawmakers wrote Friday that "having fought for four years against the Trump administration's full-scale assault on refugee resettlement in the United States, we were relieved to see you commit to increasing our refugee resettlement numbers so early in your administration."

"But until the Emergency Presidential Determination is finalized," the lawmakers noted, "our refugee policy remains unacceptably draconian and discriminatory."

Human rights organizations and progressive Democrats have grown increasingly frustrated in recent weeks as Biden has failed to live up to his commitment to reverse Trump's xenophobic refugee policies, which lowered the U.S. admissions cap by more than 80%.

"It's one signature that we need that separates all these people from safety," Erol Kekic, director of the immigration and refugee program at Church World Service, told Al Jazeera earlier this week. "It's really unclear as to why—after candidate Biden made all those promises, after President Biden signed executive orders, and after they held legally required consultation with Congress—they still have not signed the presidential determination."

Citing unnamed sources, CNN reported Thursday that "Biden has resisted signing off on raising the Trump-era refugee cap because of political optics."

"One Democratic aide described what is unfolding as 'vintage Biden' in terms of preserving his options so that he can maintain decision-making space for the one that best suits him politically," CNN added.

With Biden reportedly concerned about the "optics" of admitting more refugees, people seeking to flee violence and persecution in their home countries have been left in a state of uncertainty and confusion, their plans upended by the president's inaction.

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The Washington Post reported Thursday that "human rights advocates... say the delay is inflicting growing harm on refugees desperate to take flight to the United States."

"They cite canceled flights for refugees ready to travel, including a pregnant mother who missed the window to fly; a family who sold its belongings in preparation to come, only to be left in limbo; and refugees from African and majority-Muslim countries still constrained by President Donald Trump's restrictive policies," the Post noted.

According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a global humanitarian aid organization, Biden is currently "on track to welcome the lowest number of refugees since the creation of the modern-day refugee resettlement program in 1980."

In their letter on Friday, the Democratic lawmakers wrote that "we must keep our promises to people who have fled unthinkably brutal conditions in their home countries and live up to our ambition to provide them a safe haven to re-start their lives."

"There are more displaced people today than at any time in human history," the lawmakers added. "We have it within our power to help alleviate this suffering, to reduce the burdens on overstretched countries in the Global South, and to be a refuge for families who have been forced into unthinkable conditions through no fault of their own."

Read the full letter:

We are writing to express the urgent need for your administration to immediately sign an Emergency Presidential Determination to formalize the proposed revised FY21 refugee admissions goal of 62,500, restore regional allocations, and resume resettlement based on vulnerability. Having fought for four years against the Trump Administration's full-scale assault on refugee resettlement in the United States, we were relieved to see you commit to increasing our refugee resettlement numbers so early in your administration. But until the Emergency Presidential Determination is finalized, our refugee policy remains unacceptably draconian and discriminatory.

We have all been deeply distressed at the stories of hundreds of refugees who had been cleared for resettlement having their flights cancelled at the last minute, in some cases having already left their residences and sold their belongings. We must keep our promises to people who have fled unthinkably brutal conditions in their home countries and live up to our ambition to provide them a safe haven to re-start their lives.

Further, finalizing the Emergency Presidential Determination is a critical step to raise the cap and restore geographic allocations to ensure diversity among admitted refugees. The prior administration's highly restrictive admission categories and bans on the resettlement of refugees from Somalia, Syria, and Yemen have a strong impact on the diversity of refugees, and disproportionately exclude Muslim refugees and those fleeing some of the world's worst crises in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.Without this immediate action, the International Rescue Committee now reports that your administration is currently on track to admit fewer refugees than any other President in U.S. history. We know that this is not your intention, and not in accordance with your commitments as President or throughout your career in public service. Until you finalize your proposed changes to the program, however, it remains a fact.

There is immense and growing urgency on this issue, for the many who have already been approved for resettlement, and for the unimaginable number of people who continue to hold out hope that they can one day rebuild their lives destroyed by climate, conflict, and repression. There are more displaced people today than at any time in human history, and the growing crises of forced displacement in Ethiopia and the Central African Republic will only add to the millions of Rohingya, Syrians, Venezuelans, Eritreans, Somalis, and many others who have their lives indefinitely on hold. We have it within our power to help alleviate this suffering, to reduce the burdens on overstretched countries in the Global South, and to be a refuge for families who have been forced into unthinkable conditions through no fault of their own.

We stress again the incredible urgency of finalizing the Emergency Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for FY2021 immediately. Lives depend on it.

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