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White House says Biden will allow more refugees after Democrats blasted announcement of sharp limits

The president had said in February he would raise the limit from 15,000 to 62,500 for this year.
Image: Joe Biden
President Joe Biden takes questions from the media in the State Dining Room at The White House, on April 6, 2021.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — After enduring fierce Democratic criticism for announcing it would preserve a Trump-era limit on refugees allowed to enter the U.S., the White House on Friday afternoon abruptly claimed there was "confusion" regarding the earlier statement and promised an increased cap by May 15.

The White House rush to explain the earlier statement came after President Joe Biden was fiercely criticized by advocacy groups and Democrats in Congress for appearing to break his promise to increase the refugee cap from 15,000 to 62,500. He had also previously said he would raise the cap to 125,000 for the following fiscal year.

The new statement appeared to be a reversal from the one issued earlier Friday, and the White House did not respond to request to explain how the bungled message unfolded.

On Friday morning, the White House distributed the text of a directive Biden would be signing that would keep the Trump-era limits in place, which a senior administration official confirmed at the time.

A few hours later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement saying that there had been “some confusion” around Biden’s presidential directive and that he would still change the refugee caps in a few weeks. Psaki said the intent of Friday’s directive was to immediately reverse President Donald Trump’s policy that banned refugees from certain regions in Africa and the Middle East.

Psaki said that due to the “decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, [Biden’s] initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely,” adding that the president would set “a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15.”

A senior administration official told NBC News earlier Friday that the detective would “keep the number at 15,000” but would “be changing the regional allocation of those refugees.” The official did not mention the May 15 date.

Biden notified Congress in February that he would increase the number of refugees allowed to enter the country to 62,500, but he never signed the determination that would actually raise the cap, effectively keeping the cap created by Trump. Such paperwork is usually signed shortly after a policy announcement.

Psaki was asked several times in recent days why after two months Biden still had not signed the presidential determination to lift the caps, but failed to provide reporters with details.

"I can assure anyone who has concerns that the president remains committed to this issue. He is somebody who believes that refugees, that immigrants are the heart and soul of our country, and they have been for decades," Psaki said Thursday.

"And it certainly is an issue he remains committed to," she added. "But I don’t have an update on the timeline of the signing."

The confusion comes as Biden faces pressure on his administration to address the surge of migrants, many of them unaccompanied children, arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum. Republicans have criticized Biden for the situation, painting his administration as weak on border security.

While anyone at a port of entry or in the U.S. is legally entitled to apply for asylum, that is different from refugee resettlement. Refugees typically apply to come to the U.S. while overseas and often wait years before being admitted into the country. Biden's decision is likely to leave hundreds of refugees in limbo who have already been vetted and passed security clearances.

According to an analysis by the International Rescue Committee, Biden is on track to accept the fewest refugees this year of any modern president, including Trump. The IRC said that midway through the 2021 fiscal year, only 2,050 refugees had been admitted.

Biden faced swift backlash from Democrats in Congress, who had been publicly calling on him to follow through with his commitment.

"Failing to issue a new Determination undermines your declared purpose to reverse your predecessor’s refugee policies," Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., called Biden's decision "shameful," while Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said it was "disastrous."

"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," Jayapal said in a statement.