4 May 2021

President Biden changes course on American refugee numbers

11:49 am on 4 May 2021

President Biden has lifted the US annual refugee cap, bowing to outrage from his party after he initially opted to stick by the Trump-era figure.

 US President Joe Biden speaks about foreign policy at the State Department in Washington, DC, on February 4, 2021.

President Biden has announced changes to America's refugee allowance. Photo: AFP

The Democratic president is raising the cap from 15,000 to 62,500 amid outcry by progressives and refugee agencies.

The White House had indicated Biden would revise the figure in May.

Reports last month said Biden was concerned about letting in more people amid a record influx at the US-Mexico border.

What did Biden say?

The new figure of 62,500 "erases the historically low number" set by former President Donald Trump, Biden said today.

Biden also said his administration intends to raise this number next year to 125,000 refugees admitted.

But he acknowledged the US will not actually achieve 62,500 refugee admissions this year, arguing that his administration had to "undo the damage" of the previous one.

The Biden administration has consistently directed blame for the problems at the border on the Trump administration, with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki calling the immigration system left behind by Mr Trump "dismantled" and "unworkable".

Trump gradually slashed the refugee cap throughout his tenure, bringing the number from 110,000 in President Barack Obama's last year in office to the record low of 15,000.

This "did not reflect America's values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees", Biden said in his statement today.

Why has he revised the figure?

Biden had said in an April emergency declaration that the admission of up to 15,000 refugees was "justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest".

The president instead lifted restrictions on resettlements from Somalia, Syria and Yemen and provided more slots to arrivals from Africa, the Middle East and Central America.

Biden faced immediate blowback from refugee groups and members of his own party, with left-wing New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez describing the lower refugee cap as "xenophobic and racist".

World Relief, a humanitarian organisation, said White House claims that the US refugee resettlement programme needed to be rebuilt after the Trump years was "a completely false narrative" and "a purely political calculation".

Biden's flip-flop forced hundreds of refugees already cleared for travel to cancel their flights.

A White House official told Reuters news agency on Monday that the president chose to raise the ceiling in order to "send a very clear message that refugee processing is a critical part of America's place in the world", adding that the initial cap "did not send the right message".

The decision has been applauded by refugee groups, including the International Rescue Committee.

"President Biden's decision is good for America and good for refugees," said its chief executive, David Miliband, a former British Labour Party MP. "We welcome the bold steps to build back refugee protection after four years of deeply damaging policy."

What has this got to do with the US-Mexico border?

The country's refugee programme is distinct from the asylum system. Refugee status applies to those who seek protection while still overseas, while asylum seekers do so from a port of entry or from inside the US.

But the White House is known to be concerned about the optics of a record number of undocumented immigrants arriving at the southern border, with the numbers expected to rise as the weather warms.

Figures for unaccompanied children in particular have soared, straining shelters and available resources. Photos from inside a migrant border facility showed children crammed together and not socially distanced.

Last week, Democratic Senator Mark Kelly, from the border state of Arizona, expressed frustration with Biden's handling of the "crisis" - a label that the White House has so far resisted.

A new survey from the Pew Research Center found a majority of American adults were critical of the US government's handling of the border situation.

About two-thirds of US adults said the Biden administration was doing a very bad or somewhat bad job of dealing with the increased number of people seeking asylum, according to the findings. This included more than half - 56 percent - of Democrats polled.

- BBC