Since his days on the campaign trail, President Biden has tried to cast himself as diametrically opposed to President Donald Trump when it comes to welcoming refugees into the United States.
Within two weeks of taking office, Biden signed an executive order to rebuild and enhance federal programs to resettle refugees — programs he said had been “badly damaged” under the Trump administration. Biden also revoked some restrictive immigration policies Trump had put in place, including ones that sought to ban refugees from certain countries. In February, Biden announced he was raising the annual cap on refugee admissions to 125,000 for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, up from Trump’s historically low limit of 15,000.
However, Biden has yet to do one thing that would make all of those changes official: sign what is known as a presidential determination. Without that action, Trump’s old policies and his 15,000-person cap on refugee settlements remain in effect. Signing a presidential determination typically takes place almost immediately after such policy announcements. The delay has so far lasted eight weeks.
Because of it, Biden is on track to accept the fewest refugees this year of any modern president, including Trump, according to a report released Friday from the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit humanitarian aid group.
The Biden administration has admitted only 2,050 refugees at the halfway point of this fiscal year, despite Biden’s promises to reverse Trump-era immigration policies, dramatically raise the cap on refugee settlements and respond to what his officials have called “unforeseen and urgent situations,” the IRC report noted.
The group estimated that, at the current pace and without the reversal of Trump-era policies, the Biden administration will admit only about 4,510 refugees into the United States this fiscal year, less than half of the figure admitted in Trump’s final year.
“I don’t know the specific reason why [Biden] hasn’t signed, and it’s really unusual that he hasn’t signed,” said Nazanin Ash, the IRC’s vice president for global policy and advocacy. “It is typically a standard, automatic last step in the process.”
A State Department representative on Sunday referred all questions about the presidential determination on refugee admissions to the White House. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
The IRC report criticized the delay as “unexplained” and “unjustified,” particularly amid worsening refugee crises in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It also said the administration was neglecting to use refugee resettlement as a “critical tool” to address the sharp increase in migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. This fiscal year, the United States has admitted only 139 refugees from the “Northern Triangle” countries — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
“With more than 1.4 million refugees in need of resettlement worldwide and fewer than 1 percent of all refugees ever considered for this life-saving program, no admissions slot should go unfilled,” the report said.
It also noted that Muslim refugees continue to be disproportionately affected by the Trump policies that remain in place, especially Syrian refugees who were already the group most affected by Trump’s low refugee admissions cap. Under the Biden administration, only 42 Syrian refugees have been resettled to the United States this fiscal year.
“These categories are nothing short of discriminatory. And there’s no rational relationship between these categories and any security or other concern of the United States,” Ash said. “They were simply put in place by the Trump administration to restrict refugee admissions and in particular to restrict the admission of black, brown, Asian and Muslim refugees.”
Among groups that work with refugees, Ash said Biden’s delay was met with confusion at first, followed by a “deep concern” as days turned into weeks. Refugees who initially cheered Biden’s policy changes — and in many cases who began upending their lives again to finally move to the United States because they thought they had received the green light — were left in the lurch and have been for two months.
“As a result, tens of thousands of already-cleared refugees remain barred from resettlement and over 700 resettlement flights have been cancelled, leaving vulnerable refugees in uncertain limbo,” the report said.
However, refugee advocates say those in limbo often cannot afford to wait weeks, let alone months, until the next fiscal year.