Politico reports that while the White House held a call with refugee resettlement agencies just hours after last Friday’s outrage over President Joe Biden’s decision to keep the previous administration’s historically low 15,000 admissions cap on refugees in place, it appeared that advocates continued to remain largely in the dark about why the president backed down from the proposed 62,500 cap from the first days of his administration.

“Two sources on the call said they still had outstanding questions and were not told whose decision it was to keep the cap at 15,000,” the report said. Nor did the White House explain “why it didn’t say in its initial announcement that the president would issue a ‘final, increased refugee cap’ by May 15,” it continued. But it was clearly in response to the backlash over the president’s broken pledge. Members of the administration also cited the previous administration’s dismantling of the refugee system. But that’s not entirely the case.

American Immigration Council’s Aaron Reichlin-Melnick noted in a post that White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in a tweet cited the need “to rebuild our refugee resettlement program” as a reason for the president keeping the previous president’s 15,000 cap in place. ”However, anonymous sources told reporters the real reason that Biden didn’t increase the cap was political,” Reichlin-Melnick wrote, “because of the ongoing situation at the border and fears that Americans and the GOP would falsely conflate the two issues.”

“Biden resists raising refugee cap over political optics, sources say,” CNN reported the day before the announcement. “Another anonymous official said that Biden didn’t want to appear ‘soft’ on refugees given the current rise in asylum seekers at the border,” Reichlin-Melnick continued. “This is despite the fact that the asylum and refugee programs are entirely separate and refugees are vetted for years before being allowed to enter.”

That was reiterated by other leaders outraged over the president’s decision. “To be clear: the asylum process at the southern border and the refugee process are completely separate immigration systems,” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said according to the Associated Press. “Conflating the two constitutes caving to the politics of fear.”

Early in the administration, Biden had proposed raising the current fiscal year’s cap to 62,500 refugees as he sought a 125,000 for the first full fiscal year of his presidency. Like previously noted, agencies that work with the federal government to resettle refugees said immense repairs were needed, but said they were prepared to handle the 62,500 cap proposed by the president. When Biden after two months had not yet signed the presidential determination making his proposal official, resettlement agencies sent a letter urging him to act, CNN reported.

Resettlement agencies again reiterated they had some infrastructure for a higher number following the administration’s initial announcement that it would keep the previous administration’s 15,000 cap in place. “While it is true the Trump administration left the resettlement infrastructure in tatters, we feel confident and able to serve far more families than this order accounts for,” Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service president and CEO Krish O’Mara Vignarajah said.

Refugees and their advocates won a significant victory when the Biden administration walked back its decision and said it would issue a revised cap by May 15. “But [White House Press Sec. Jen Psaki] cautioned that ‘given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely,’” CNN reported. Advocates are now awaiting what the new number will be, and have expressed further concern over the month-long wait when even short delays can represent life or death situations for refugees. 

“While I’m heartened to learn that @POTUS still intends to increase the number of refugee admissions, I urge the admin. to move with urgency and communicate with clarity,” El Paso Rep. Veronica Escobar tweeted. “There’s no time to waste. Vulnerable refugees are waiting in dangerous and unacceptable conditions as a result of the Trump administration’s efforts to codify xenophobia and further limit legal immigration pathways.”

Biden’s announcement keeping the previous administration’s 15,000 cap startled refugee groups and advocates. One of Biden’s first statements after winning the presidential election was in fact a statement to the Jesuit Refugee Service reaffirming his pledge to restore the refugee program. “The United States has long stood as a beacon of hope for the downtrodden and the oppressed, a leader of resettling refugees in our humanitarian response,” Religion News Services reports Biden said. “I promise, as president, I will reclaim that proud legacy for our country.”

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