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Behind Biden’s Flip-Flop on Refugees

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Back in February, as President Biden signed executive orders reversing a number of Trump-era immigration policies, he pledged “to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families.”

Since then, inconvenient realities have set in. Mr. Biden has been embroiled in a humanitarian emergency, not to mention a political quagmire, dealing with the migration surge at the southern border. And with a comprehensive immigration bill stalled in the Senate, Democrats there are looking for a way to bundle a compromise into another bill that could be passed through budgetary reconciliation.

But the Trump administration’s isolationist turn was felt well beyond the border, and human-rights advocates have been watching eagerly to see whether Mr. Biden will fully roll back all the restrictions that he has the power to.

So they reacted in outrage last month when the White House said it would temporarily leave in place the previous administration’s 15,000-person annual cap on refugees allowed into the United States — the lowest number in decades.

Mr. Biden’s team quickly walked that back, and yesterday the White House announced that it was taking steps to restore refugee limits to previous levels — allowing as many as 62,500 refugees to enter the country in the next six months. But it stipulated that it didn’t think it would actually reach its new target, at least not in that time frame.

I chatted with Zolan Kanno-Youngs, a Washington reporter who wrote an article on the reversal with Michael Shear, about why the Biden administration flip-flopped in the first place — and what its decision tells us about its approach to issues around migration going forward.

Hi, Zolan. On the campaign trail, Biden said that he would once again make the United States a welcoming place for refugees fleeing danger abroad. But a few weeks ago, he said he would leave in place the Trump administration’s historically low limit of 15,000 people per year. Do we have a sense of why he did that?

To take a step back, the Biden administration first told Congress it would raise the refugee cap to 62,500 in February. They did this earlier than usual by citing a humanitarian emergency — presidents usually set a new refugee ceiling in the fall. Shortly after informing Congress of the new cap, crossings at the southern border of children and teenagers soared, fueling criticism from Republicans and some moderate Democrats that Biden had lost control of the border.

Our reporting has shown Biden felt raising the cap would be terrible timing given the political pressure he was facing. The White House has rather said the administration delayed raising the cap out of a concern that the action would strain resources in the refugee office of the Department of Health and Human Services. While that office has scrambled to provide shelters to teenagers crossing the border, it has a much more limited role in vetting refugees overseas.

As soon as he announced that he would stick to the 15,000 number, Biden was subjected to intense pressure from advocates on the left. Yesterday he bowed to that pressure, announcing that the country would welcome 62,500 refugees in the coming six months. Who was leading the charge here, and how did they ultimately persuade the White House to change course?

There were a number of people who criticized the decision by the White House to keep that refugee cap. The White House did not expect the backlash, believing the public would focus on the removal of Trump-era restrictions that made it difficult for African refugees to come to the United States. Instead, Democrats in Congress, advocates and refugee-resettlement agencies blasted the administration for maintaining the cap.

It’s important to note that historically, presidents make the new cap official shortly after the official consultation with Congress. Biden had already delayed for well over a month, despite a plea from his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to make good on his commitment.

There is a difference between refugees, who are recognized by the international community as fleeing human-rights violations at home, and asylum seekers, who don’t always fit that description, but who make up a large share of the migrants arriving at the United States’ southern border. Will this decision have any impact on the fraught situation at the border?

Not immediately. As you note, we’re talking about two different immigrant populations here.

Refugees apply to come to the United States overseas and are subjected to a rigorous vetting process before they board the plane. Many of those at the border traveled from Central America and stepped on U.S. soil to ask for asylum.

The United States has long thought a strategy of discouraging migrants from making the dangerous journey to the border is providing more opportunities in Central America to apply for the refugee program — essentially allowing them to ask for protection in the United States but without leaving their home country. Raising the cap is a step toward that goal, but it will take awhile to develop the infrastructure.

The White House has clarified that although the 62,500 number matches the annual target Biden threw out during the campaign, it doesn’t expect to hit that number. It seems unlikely that there simply aren’t enough people fleeing danger in foreign countries to reach that limit. So what is preventing the United States from reaching its new cap?

Well, one reason is the delay we’ve been discussing. The administration has resettled only roughly 2,360 refugees, according to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a refugee-resettlement agency. The prior administration’s cuts to the cap also had a significant impact on the program’s resources. Refugee officers were reassigned from posts abroad, which were shuttered.

It will take time to rebuild the infrastructure of the program. A cap also does not necessarily mean a commitment to welcoming in that exact number of refugees. It is rather a ceiling on how many will be allowed in.

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