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Politics & Policy

Why Is Joe Biden Blocking Joe Biden from Raising the Refugee Cap?

President Joe Biden speaks from the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., April 12, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

President Joe Biden, speaking at the U.S. State Department, February 4:

Today, I’m approving an executive order to begin the hard work of restoring our refugee admissions program to help meet the unprecedented global need.  It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do.

This executive order will position us to be able to raise the refugee admissions back up to 125,000 persons for the first full fiscal year of the Biden-Harris administration.  And I’m directing the State Department to consult with Congress about making a down payment on that commitment as soon as possible.

Oddly, 72 days after that announcement, Biden has not signed that executive order. This is not a situation where Biden needs Congress to pass legislation. He can change the refugee cap with the stroke of his pen. Biden simply hasn’t gotten around to it.

CNN cites unnamed sources who say Biden has resisted signing off on raising the Trump-era refugee cap because of political optics. That may be the case, but it doesn’t reflect well for Biden to publicly pledge to do something, and then renege on that pledge, because he thinks it will be unpopular – and it’s particularly bad to renege on the promise and then refuse to explain why.

Yesterday, Jen Psaki had an almost comical inability to explain why Biden hadn’t signed an executive order he had promised more than two months ago:

Q    You know, we hear a lot of concerns from your allies on Capitol Hill.  And I think the big concern is not necessarily, right now, when is the President going to sign the directive; it’s what are the issues that are holding it up.  And I feel like Democratic senators we’ve spoken to don’t have answers to that, even though they said they’ve reached out to you guys.  We don’t have answers that either.  Are there actual, tangible reasons why this has not been signed yet?
 
MS. PSAKI:  Well, I can assure you and 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.

And that is why he has proposed, you know, a comprehensive immigration reform bill.  That is why he wants to improve the — the processing of those seeking asylum at the border.  And it certainly is an issue he remains committed to.  That’s why he — he stated that.  But I don’t have an update on the timeline of the signing.

Q    I didn’t ask about the timeline.  The reasons though — what is the holdup here?  Is it —
 
MS. PSAKI:  It remains — it remains an issue.  The President remains committed to raising the refugee cap, and I can assure anyone who has concerns that that remains the case.

Maybe it’s like Joe Biden’s promise to not hold children in detention centers, his promise to send out $2,000 stimulus checks, his promise to establish a national commission on policing, or to not raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000, or to punish the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, or his promise to end the use of standardized testing in schools…

Maybe Joe Biden just makes a lot of promises to a lot of people that he isn’t all that committed to keeping.

UPDATE: Around midday, the administration announced they would keep the refugee cap number at 15,000, and change the regional allocation of those refugees.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Late Friday afternoon, Jen Psaki e-mailed the media to clarify that… eh, the policy was in flux, whatever they had announced before was not necessarily going to stay in place, and they’re making it up as they go along:

The President’s directive today has been the subject of some confusion.  Last week, he sent to Congress his budget for the fiscal year starting in October 2021, which honors his commitment.  For the past few weeks, he has been consulting with his advisors to determine what number of refugees could realistically be admitted to the United States between now and October 1.  Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely.

While finalizing that determination, the President was urged to take immediate action to reverse the Trump policy that banned refugees from many key regions, to enable flights from those regions to begin within days; today’s order did that.  With that done, we expect the President to set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15.

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