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Biden retains Trump's historic-low refugee cap for now, angering allies

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After weeks of unexplained delay, President Biden on Friday announced he will, for now, keep the current historic-low cap on refugee admissions instituted by former President Trump, angering allies who support his promise to rebuild the gutted U.S. resettlement system.

Mr. Biden signed an order Friday scrapping Trump-era categories that severely narrowed who could be admitted into the U.S. as a refugee. However, Mr. Biden's order did not alter the record-low 15,000-spot refugee ceiling for fiscal year 2021 enacted by his predecessor, despite an earlier pledge to quadruple admissions of immigrants fleeing war and violence.

Following widespread criticism from refugee advocates and lawmakers, including some of Mr. Biden's closest allies in Congress, the administration issued a statement later Friday indicating the president will raise the cap next month.

Refugee advocates quickly and forcefully expressed disappointment and frustration over Mr. Biden's initial announcement. Meredith Owen, the director of policy and advocacy at Church World Service, one of nine national refugee resettlement agencies, said there is "no moral reason" to continue enforcing Mr. Trump's cap.

"It's very disappointing. It's an unforced error," Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, told CBS News. "There's no real excuse to propose an increase from 15,000 to 62,500, consult with Congress and then go back and say, 'actually, we're going to keep Trump's historic-low refugee ceiling.'"

The president's congressional allies, who had been pressuring him for weeks to sign the refugee directive, also expressed concern. "It is simply unacceptable and unconscionable that the Biden Administration is not immediately repealing Donald Trump's harmful, xenophobic, and racist refugee cap that cruelly restricts refugee admissions to a historically low level," Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal said in a statement Friday.

"I'm sorry but meeting Trump-era benchmarks on refugee resettlement is no victory," one Democratic congressional aide told CBS News.

A child passes by migrants standing near tents inside the refugee camp of Kara Tepe in Mytilene, on Lesbos, on March 29, 2021. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

After Mr. Biden signed the new presidential determination, White House press secretary Jen Psaki released a statement announcing that the president would be issuing yet another directive by mid-May to "set a final, increased" refugee ceiling for fiscal year 2021.

"Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely," Psaki wrote, presumably referring to the record number of unaccompanied children entering U.S. border custody.

Mr. Biden came into office pledging to dismantle his predecessor's refugee policy. Mr. Trump enacted consecutive record-low refugee ceilings; depicted refugees as economic and national security risks; allowed states to veto their resettlement; and severely narrowed who was eligible for U.S. refuge.

In addition to instituting the lowest cap in the history of the modern refugee program, Mr. Trump also got rid of regional allocations of resettlement spots, outlining narrow categories for specific groups, like people fleeing religious persecution. The limits have disproportionally affected African, Middle Eastern and Muslim refugees, as well as unaccompanied children fleeing violence.

Mr. Biden's presidential determination ended these categories by restoring regional allocations of refugee spots. Mr. Biden's proposal distributes 7,000 refugee spots for Africa; 3,000 for Latin America and the Caribbean; 1,500 for Europe and Central Asia; 1,500 for the Near East and South Asia; and 1,000 for East Asia. The remaining 1,000 spots were not allocated for specific regions.

Soon after taking office, Mr. Biden reiterated his campaign pledge to raise the refugee cap to 125,000 for fiscal year 2022. He also pledged to make a "down payment" on that promise, which the State Department followed through on in early February by proposing to revise the ceiling for the current fiscal year to 62,500 spots and end Mr. Trump's restrictive resettlement categories.

The unexpected, unexplained delay led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights for refugees ready to build a new life in the U.S. and kept tens of thousands of displaced people in the U.S. resettlement pipeline in limbo. It also angered some of Mr. Biden's most ardent allies.

"Failing to issue a new Determination undermines your declared purpose to reverse your predecessor's refugee policies and to rebuild the Refugee Admissions Program to a target of 125,000 people in FY22, and threatens U.S. leadership on forced migration," New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee, wrote in a letter to Mr. Biden Friday.

Since the current fiscal year started in October, less than 2,200 refugees have been admitted into the U.S., according to State Department data provided to CBS News. Refugee advocates fear the U.S. could resettle a historic low number of refugees this fiscal year, lower than the 11,800 admitted under Mr. Trump in fiscal year 2020.

The security or medical checks of more than 2,000 once travel-ready refugees have expired in the past few weeks because they don't meet Mr. Trump's narrow admissions categories, according to government figures distributed to resettlement agencies. 

Overall, there are currently fewer than 700 refugees who are travel ready; more than 35,000 whose cases have been approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; and 75,000 who have been pre-screened by the U.S., according to the figures.

A senior White House official on Friday said the administration is committed to using all the 15,000 refugee spots allocated for this fiscal year and that it will consult with Congress again if it decides to raise the cap due to an "unforeseen emergency situation."

An Eritrean refugee child runs in an alley at Mai Aini Refugee camp, in Ethiopia, on January 30, 2021. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

While the White House has declined to offer an explanation for the delay, congressional officials and refugee advocates suspect the Biden administration is hesitant to make an announcement amid the sharp increase in apprehensions of migrants, including historic numbers of unaccompanied children, at the U.S.-Mexico border.

"There is some notion that what is happening at the southwest border is sort of taking up all of the immigration bandwidth right now, that the public doesn't understand the difference between refugees and asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants and that it's just kind of a fight not worth having at this moment," Barbara Strack, who led the USCIS refugee division from 2005 to 2018, told CBS News.

Strack said the conflation of the two issues would be problematic.

"Operationally, programmatically and policy wise, you can do both," she added. "The United States' response to humanitarian crises can both deal with asylum seekers at the border and having an orderly and rigorous refugee program overseas."

Joseph Sankisha lived in a refugee camp for nearly a decade after fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that he said had killed several family members, including his parents. While he's grateful to have been resettled in the U.S., Sankisha has not seen his family in over four years.

Sankisha's wife and five-year-old daughter, who remain at the Osire refugee camp in Namibia, are unlikely to be resettled in the U.S. as long Trump-era restrictions on refugee admissions continue to remain in place.

"America told us we could be in peace here and that we were going to get some rest. But to live without the family is really complicated, really hard," Sankisha said in an interview.

Sankisha said his daughter constantly asks him when their family will be together again. He said she asks him whether he will return to Africa or if they will join him in North Carolina, where he works as a truck driver.

"Please help us to see our family again," Sankisha pleaded. "We are already thankful for everything the United States of America has done for us. But to have peace of mind, we need to be together with our family members."

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