Congressional Democrats blast 'unconscionable' Biden decision capping refugee admittance

Christopher Wilson
·Senior Writer
·5-min read
From left: Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; President Biden; Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
From left: Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; President Biden; Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Biden’s decision to keep a strict Trump-era cap on refugees was met with harsh condemnation from progressives in the House and two powerful committee chairmen in the Senate.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called the decision “simply unacceptable and unconscionable” in a statement on Friday. She also mentioned Biden’s promise to lift the refugee cap, which is currently at its lowest-ever ceiling since the start of the refugee resettlement program 40 years ago.

“After four painful years of fighting Trump’s all-out draconian assault on immigrants, President Biden promised to restore America as a beacon of hope and committed to increasing our refugee resettlement numbers,” Japayal said.

“By failing to sign an Emergency Presidential Determination to lift Trump’s historically low refugee cap, President Biden has broken his promise to restore our humanity. We cannot turn our back on refugees around the world, including hundreds of refugees who have already been cleared for resettlement, have sold their belongings, and are ready to board flights.”

Biden committed in February to raising the cap of refugees allowed into the United States from the 15,000 set by Trump to up to 62,500. This was significantly lower than the 125,000 he had promised as a candidate last year. The decision has left thousands of refugees who have already been vetted stuck in limbo across the globe.

The administration had said the decision was due to stress on the system from the number of migrant children at the southern border. It also said it needed to evaluate “how ineffective or how trashed” the refugee processing system was under Trump. On Thursday, CNN reported that Biden’s decision not to immediately lift the refugee cap was political in nature.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a Somali refugee who immigrated to America after four years in a camp in Kenya, said, “There are simply no excuses for today’s disgraceful decision. It goes directly against our values and risks the lives of little boys and girls huddled in refugee camps around the world. I know, because I was one.”

Omar also tweeted a video of Biden from the campaign in which the then candidate signaled that he wanted the U.S. to do more to help refugees. “We, the United States, used to do our part,” Biden says in the clip.

“Completely and utterly unacceptable,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. “Biden promised to welcome immigrants, and people voted for him based on that promise. Upholding the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump admin, [including] the historically low + plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong. Keep your promise.”

Jayapal, Omar and Ocasio-Cortez were among approximately three dozen legislators to send a letter to the Biden administration calling for the cap to be raised.

After the initial round of criticism, White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement late Friday afternoon saying Biden's directive had "been the subject of some confusion," suggesting that he had never intended to keep the record low refugee cap in place for the remainder of the fiscal year. Psaki said the White House expected to set a "final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15."

However, the directive Biden signed Friday makes no mention of a plan to raise the ceiling by a May 15 deadline, stating instead that "the admission of up to 15,000 refugees remains justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest" and that "should 15,000 admissions under the revised allocations for FY 2021 be reached prior to the end of the fiscal year and the emergency refugee situation persists, a subsequent Presidential Determination may be issued to increase admissions, as appropriate."

It was not only progressives in Congress who criticized the decision. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a centrist, also called for the administration to bring in more refugees.

Bob Menendez
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via Reuters/File)

“The United States has a proud, bipartisan tradition of providing refugees protection through resettlement,” Menendez, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, said in a statement. “In this time of great global need, the United States must demonstrate its robust commitment as a nation by resettling the world’s most vulnerable refugees.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., issued a statement calling the decision “unacceptable.”

“These refugees can wait years for their chance and go through extensive vetting,” said Durbin, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. “Thirty-five thousand are ready. Facing the greatest refugee crisis in our time, there is no reason to limit the number to 15,000. Say it ain’t so, President Joe.”

Human rights organizations and refugee advocacy groups also condemned the decision.

“Today, President Biden is turning his back on tens of thousands of refugees around the world who have been approved to come to the United States,” Amnesty International said in a statement, adding, “Communities across the United States, from local groups to faith-based institutions, are ready to welcome these refugees.”

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank funded by the Koch family, likewise issued a statement condemning Biden’s refusal to lift the refugee cap.

“From keeping ports of entry closed to legal asylum seekers at the border to keeping most consulates around the world closed to visa applicants, the Biden administration is keeping America’s gates almost as shut as they have ever been,” the group said.

Caitlin Dickson contributed reporting to this story.

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