Steve April 16, 2021

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will not increase the number of refugees allowed to enter the U.S. this year, breaking a prior promise to raise the cap from the historically-low level set by the Trump administration.

Biden notified Congress in February that he would increase the number of refugees allowed to enter the country from 15,000 to 62,500 in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, upping it to 125,000 for the following year. But he never signed the presidential determination that would actually raise the cap, effectively keeping the cap created by former President Donald Trump. Such paperwork is usually signed shortly after a policy announcement.

Later Friday afternoon, in an apparent response to the outpouring of criticism, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that Biden’s “directive today has been the subject of some confusion,” and said that “we expect the president to set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15.”

Biden’s initial decision to not lift the cap highlights the 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 oversees 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.

The presidential determination that Biden will sign Friday keeping the cap at 15,000 will reverse some of the restrictions that Trump put in place excluding refugees from regions such as Africa and the Middle East.

The revised allocations will 7,000 refugees from Africa, 1,000 from East Asia, 1,500 from Europe and Central Asia, 3,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean and 1,500 from Near East and South Asia. The remaining 1,000 allotments will be used “where the need for additional admissions arises,” according to the text of the determination.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked several times in recent days why after two months Biden still had not signed the presidential determination, 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.”

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.

Image: Lauren EganLauren Egan

Lauren Egan is a White House reporter for NBC News based in Washington.

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Peter Alexander is chief White House correspondent for NBC News.

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