The Biden administration’s moral missteps and waffling on U.S. refugee policy last Friday revealed a worrisome willingness to treat refugees as political footballs, putting many lives in limbo and only partially reversing course after intense blowback from centrist Democrats like Sen. Dick Durbin.
On April 16, after experiencing a few hours of outcry from congressional Democrats and grassroots organizations in response to Biden’s decision to keep Trump’s 15,000 cap on refugee admissions for the fiscal year ending this September, Biden made an unexpected about-face: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced that the limit on refugee admissions would be increased, but by a yet-to-be-determined amount, with the new number to be announced by May 15.
The Biden administration’s initial decision to reimpose Trump’s cap on refugee admissions — a cap that progressive lawmakers have decried as “unacceptably draconian and discriminatory” — came as somewhat of a surprise after Biden’s efforts to otherwise unravel Trump’s xenophobic policies and regulations, reverse the stance the government was taking in arguing key immigration cases before the Supreme Court, and attempt to create a more humanitarian process for unaccompanied minors crossing the border without paperwork. Immigration activists who had recently cheered the administration’s decision to reverse signature Trump initiatives, such as the new “public charge” rules that all but barred immigrants from emergency food, housing and medical assistance, expressed dismay over the Biden administration’s initial attempt to impose Trump’s refugee policy for the rest of the fiscal year.
The ostensible reason for Biden’s order on refugee admissions was that the resettlement system is currently overwhelmed with the huge influx of asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border, and that adding tens of thousands of refugees into the mix would overstrain the system. In reality, as Biden and his team know all too well, the two systems are apples and oranges. There are different laws regulating asylum admissions and refugee admissions, different government agencies and nonprofit systems are involved in the actual resettlement process, and, by and large, different pots of money are available to resettle refugees as opposed to processing asylum seekers through the courts.
More to the point, as administration officials told the media on Friday, Biden’s team is worried about the political optics of increasing refugee admissions at the same time as so many people are claiming asylum. They worry about public opinion and congressional blowback, and fear it could end up eclipsing all the other big-picture reforms and investments that they are seeking to achieve over the coming months. After all, while solid majorities of U.S. voters approve of Biden’s approach to COVID-19, to the economy, and to infrastructure investments and tax law changes, that majority vanishes when it comes to Biden’s approach to immigration and his handling of the surge of migrants on the southern border.
Now, the refugee admissions process has long been a political football — a way, for example, for Cold War warriors to show their fealty to Florida’s anti-communists by making it easier for Cubans, during the Cold War and decades immediately following its end, to claim refugee status; or for religious groups to advocate for their members in the countries of the former Soviet Union to be considered as refugees. In the Trump era, bashing refugees became an easy way for the demagogue-in-chief to whip up his mob. He repeatedly traveled to Minnesota, for example, where many Somali refugees have been resettled, and made racially inflammatory speeches about them, as well as about Rep. Ilhan Omar, who arrived in the U.S. from Somalia as a child refugee. Given this history, perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that POTUS 46 has caved on refugee admissions at the first sign of fragile public support on the issue.
But Biden and his team have, repeatedly, linked U.S. admission of refugees to a broader sense of the country’s place in the world. They have, from the get-go, set up refugee admissions as a litmus test for our moral values. And last week, they spectacularly failed that test.
What made Biden’s initial announcement on Friday particularly hard to bear was that during his campaign, Biden pledged to raise the annual refugee admissions level to 125,000 — and, mere weeks after his inauguration, he promised to get halfway to that goal, 62,500, just this year.
Biden’s team sweetened the announcement about adhering to the 15,000 cap and walking back his commitment to rapidly expand admissions with promises that, because Trump’s Muslim travel ban no longer held sway, the refugees would be admitted from places of greatest need, including those fleeing the ghastly civil wars in Syria and Yemen.
That’s true. But, to be honest, it’s also largely window dressing. If refugee admissions continue at this historically low level, thousands of individuals and families, who have undergone years of vetting and are now just waiting for the final word that they can set off for the U.S., will remain in limbo, in often overcrowded and unsanitary refugee camps overseas, for months (and quite likely years) to come. That’s a huge stain on the U.S.’s moral reputation.
Moreover, the refugee resettlement infrastructure — which took decades to build after World War II, and which was largely shredded during Trump’s presidency in an act of epic institutional vandalism — won’t be easily jump-started again so long as the refugee cap is kept low. That’s because, with only 15,000 refugees admitted in 2021, the federal funds (based on the numbers being resettled) won’t flow in adequate measure to groups like the International Rescue Committee and World Relief. As a result, these organizations will likely be unable to reopen shuttered offices in cities around the country, or to rehire skilled staffers who have been let go during the past four years, making it even harder down the road to quickly get up to speed should refugee admissions increase in 2022.
The about-face that the Biden administration made after facing blowback from congressional Democrats and activist groups is better than nothing, but, in its vagueness, it’s still a far cry from the earlier pledge to increase admissions up to 62,500 this year.
Around the affluent world — as wars, climate change, population stresses, water shortages, the pandemic, and other crises rage, and as tens of millions of people flee these conditions — governments are battening down their hatches against refugees and asylum seekers. In Denmark, a supposedly liberal government has begun deporting hundreds of Syrian refugees, who have lived in the country for years, back to Syria. They claim, disingenuously, that Syria is now no longer dangerous. In the U.K., the government is instituting quick-deportation policies against asylum seekers that look shockingly close to those adopted in the U.S. under Trump. In Australia, would-be asylees and refugees, many of them children, are held in prison-like conditions, for years on end, in an island fortress hundreds of miles from the mainland.
Biden promised something different, something better. He’s delivered on many of his promises in these past three months. But now he’s dropped the ball on refugees. Hopefully, the political pushback he has received will help set him on a more ethical course. For whatever the short-term political optics, it’s simply wrong to turn desperate refugees into political footballs.