Biden changes plans on refugee cap after swift condemnation from progressives, Christian groups

Reversal comes after criticism over executive order to keep Trump’s refugee limit at 15,000

U.S. President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks on the anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. on March 11, 2021. | AFP via Getty Images/MANDEL NGAN

The White House said late Friday that President Joe Biden will increase the cap on refugee admissions for the rest of this fiscal year by May 15, following backlash from progressives and Christian groups after it was first announced that his administration would keep the resettlement cap at 15,000. 

Christian groups strongly condemned the Biden administration Friday after it was announced that he would maintain the refugee resettlement cap at 15,000 people, matching former President Donald Trump’s historically low admissions goal and going back on his promise to raise the number to 125,000.

The White House announced midday Friday that Biden had signed a revised Presidential Determination for Refugee Resettlement, eliminating restrictions the Trump administration had put in place concerning the qualification for refugees, while keeping the number of admissions at 15,000 for the year ending Sept. 30, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Before the reversal was announced, Christian refugee resettlement group World Relief said in a statement, "While Biden’s revised PD does make important and long-awaited changes to regional admissions categories, the decision to keep the refugee cap at an all-time low represents a stunning betrayal of the president’s previous commitment.”

The revised PD means that the U.S. would admit only 4,100 refugees this fiscal year, which is already at the halfway point, the Evangelical Immigration Table noted in a statement, adding that Biden's refugee numbers “would be the lowest level in the U.S. refugee resettlement program’s history.”

“Rhetoric is no refuge for the persecuted — we need action,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The ceiling, Moore added, “should be raised immediately so our nation can welcome those we already vetted.”

“The refugee program is distinct from other paths of immigration and unrelated crises should not distract us from doing what’s right for refugees,” he continued. “We know the program is a secure and thorough process by which America can serve as a beacon of freedom and safe harbor for the oppressed, including persecuted Christians and other imperiled religious minorities.”

Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said evangelical Christians’ commitment to refugees “is rooted in the biblical belief that each of these individuals is a person made in the image of God with inherent dignity, whose lives are worth protecting.”

World Relief President Scott Arbeiter remarked, “At a time when refugees and immigrants need American leadership more than ever before, President Biden is refusing to take action.”

After the backlash, the White House said Biden will increase the cap on refugee admissions for the remainder of the fiscal year by May 15, but it did not disclose what that number might be.

In February, Biden said in a speech at the State Department, which runs the refugee program, that he was approving an executive order to raise the refugee admissions ceiling to 125,000 "for the first full fiscal year of the Biden-Harris administration. And I’m directing the State Department to consult with Congress about making a down payment on that commitment as soon as possible." 

At that time, it was decided that the Biden administration would raise the cap through the rest of this fiscal year to 62,500. The cap pertains to the number of refugees who are allowed to enter the U.S. in a fiscal year. However, approvals can exceed that number.

Last November, in a video message to the Jesuit Refugee Service in honor of the organization's 40th anniversary, Biden, who was the presumptive president-elect at the time, spoke of his plans to raise the refugee resettlement ceiling to the highest numbers ever.

“The United States has long stood as a beacon of hope for the downtrodden and the oppressed, a leader in resettling refugees and our humanitarian response,” Biden said.

“I promise, as president, I will reclaim that proud legacy for our country. The Biden-Harris administration will restore America’s historic role in protecting the vulnerable and defending the rights of refugees everywhere and raising our annual refugee admission target to 125,000.”

Salguero noted, however, that months after informing Congress of “an ‘emergency’ need to raise the refugee ceiling to 62,500 for the remainder of the federal fiscal year, the ceiling remains at the historically low level of 15,000.”

“As a direct result, more than 700 individuals approved for resettlement have had their already booked travel plans canceled,” he lamented.

“Some will not be allowed to travel immediately even once the ceiling is signed, because required health and security screenings will have expired and need to be restarted, further delaying reunification with family in the U.S. in many cases.”

In October 2020, many humanitarian groups, including the Evangelical Immigration Table, had expressed concerns over Trump's decision to lower the refugee cap.

“In recent years ... the United States has not lived up to its ideals as the number of refugees welcomed into our country has plummeted due to policies that diminished the resettlement process,” they stated at the time. “The United States cannot ignore the needs of displaced people around the world. We urge the Administration to return the refugee resettlement limit to historical levels so America can continue to be the beacon of liberty for all.”

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