Just what is Joe Biden’s plan for resettling more refugees in the United States? It’s a fair question to ask after a confusing series of statements from the administration within a few hectic hours on April 16. First, the president announced that he would maintain the Trump administration’s historically low cap, limiting entry to 15,000 refugees per fiscal year. This was a reversal of his pledge on the campaign trail and of the executive order he signed in February, which significantly raised the ceiling for this fiscal year and next. The announcement came as a surprise to both centrist and progressive Democrats and generated an immediate outcry. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois condemned the move as unacceptable, while New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declared it “flat-out wrong.” Humanitarian groups called it a betrayal. The administration soon walked back the statement, suggesting the cap would in fact be raised this year to the previously promised figure of 62,500. But then, before the day was out, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that while the administration would aim to admit more refugees by the end of 2021, meeting Biden’s promise of 62,500 “seems unlikely,” and that a revised ceiling would be determined by May 15. As a clarification, it didn’t add much clarity. Once again the future of thousands of refugees who have waited years to begin new lives in the United States was cast into doubt.
Just as alarming were the administration’s tortured explanations for reneging on its promise. It cited health risks presented by the pandemic. It blamed its predecessor for leaving behind a “decimated” and “shattered” system, asserting that the resettlement program would need a complete overhaul in order to process a higher number of refugees—a claim immediately refuted by aid agencies that say they are sufficiently prepared to handle an increase in arrivals. It also tied the decision to the increase in the number of people seeking asylum at the southern border; reprising this argument the next day, Biden said his administration “couldn’t do two things at once.” But this is misleading. While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services oversees resettlement of both refugees and unaccompanied migrant children, these two distinct groups of people are processed through two different government agencies, each with its own budget and personnel. Unlike those who come to the border seeking asylum, refugees are vetted and approved for resettlement prior to coming to the United States. The Biden administration’s attempt to link these two different groups of people fooled no one, and critics rightly pointed out it was the same specious argument the Trump administration used to justify its unprecedentedly restrictive measures.