The Biden administration announced on Monday it aims to accept up to 62,500 refugees into the US before the year’s end.
The move comes after President Joe Biden faced intense criticism for initially deciding to stick with the Trump administration’s record-low goal of 15,000 refugees per year.
“This erases the historically low number set by the previous administration of 15,000, which did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees,” the White House said in a statement on Monday.
The decision was welcomed by migration advocates, although the revised target is still well below historic refugee resettlement numbers in the US. Some years have seen more than 200,000 refugees enter the country.
The White House also warned that after the Trump administration’s numerous large and small-scale rule changes to the immigration system vastly scaled back both the refugee and asylum admissions, even the 62,500 benchmark might not be possible.
“The sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year. We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years,” it said in a statement.
During the Trump years, both the refugee cap and the attendant funding for resettlement were cut, changes made even more impactful as coronavirus further slowed immigration processing and closed down diplomatic officers.
President Biden made reversing these changes a major campaign priority, and has vowed to raise refugee admissions to 125,000 for his first full fiscal year in office, 2021, which would be higher than targets set in the Obama administration.
Initially, however, the White House was aiming for far less refugees in 2020, keeping the cap at 15,000 due to “the decimated refugee admissions programme we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki explained.
Immigrant groups and political allies alike were outraged.
“This is a time of unprecedented global need, and the US is still far from returning to its historic role of safe haven for the world’s persecuted and most vulnerable,” David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement at the time.
The decision came a time when a large number of asylum seekers, processed through an entirely separate system, were arriving at the US-Mexico border and generating a firestorm of political controversy.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called keep the low refugee cap “utterly unacceptable”.
“Completely and utterly unacceptable,” she wrote in a tweet. “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 and plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong. Keep your promise.”
Despite differentiating himself on immigration from has hard-right predecessor, the Biden administration hasn’t rolled back some of the Trump administration’s most impactful changes.
President Biden has kept in place Title 42, a Trump directive that largely shuts down the southern border to adult asylum-seekers out of coronavirus concerns, even though CDC scientists advised the previous administration there was no legitimate public health reason for doing so.
During the campaign, Mr Biden also vowed to end Mr Trump’s so-called “Remain in Mexico” programme, which stranded tens of thousands in squalid camps on the Mexican side of the border as they waited for asylum claims to process.
The new administration has allowed some of those under this program to enter the US or seek coronavirus testing as they wait to, but only about 1.5 per cent held under the programme have been granted final immigration relief.
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