President Joe Biden entered the Oval Office with a lot of promises, but perhaps none were as audacious and expansive as what he said he'd do to overhaul former President Donald Trump's U.S. immigration policy. Core to that: In February, his administration vowed to raise the ceiling more than 300 percent on Trump's historically low refugee cap, upping it from 15,000 to 62,500 for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2021.
"President Trump's decision to close America's doors to refugees fleeing persecution is cruel and shortsighted," then-candidate Biden said in November 2019. "As president, I will restore America's historic commitment to welcoming those whose lives are threatened by conflict and crisis."
Today he announced that, although he would move to expedite refugee admissions, he will keep Trump's cap as is. His decision leaves thousands of people—who had already been vetted to come to the U.S.—stuck in refugee camps across the globe as they seek protection from persecution and war.
"This phased approach considers the work needed to rebuild our resettlement program and the global challenges for refugee resettlement," a Biden official told Axios, "including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic."
But it appears COVID-19 is not the primary reason for Biden's pivot. Instead, a senior administration official said that the increase in unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border had put a strain on the refugee branch of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), according to The New York Times.
That justification makes some sense. But it's not because of any inability to assist. Though the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has helped the administration with placing some unaccompanied children, that is not the system that broadly processes those migrant minors. Prior to the administration's Friday announcement, sources from inside the administration said Biden had pushed back on fulfilling his promise because he is concerned about the political optics at the U.S.-Mexico border, CNN reported Thursday.
"The refugee program and the unaccompanied child program are separate items in the HHS budget," says David Bier, a research fellow at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. "This is purely about politics."
Such reasoning sheds light on Biden's overall approach to immigration as he has about-faced on a slew of promises since taking office. This week, his administration seized a family's land at the border via eminent domain for the construction of a border wall after specifically campaigning on stopping those very lawsuits. "There will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration," he told NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro in August 2020. When asked about land confiscations, he responded quickly: "End, end, end, stop, done, over. Not gonna do it. Withdraw the lawsuits. We're out."
The administration symbolically rescinded Trump's "zero tolerance" policy of family separations, which hadn't been in practice since the summer of 2018. Tucked into that news cycle was that he instead told the government it can continue separating families with discretion. And though he promised to sunset Trump's "Remain in Mexico" policy—the program that forced asylum seekers to wait for their court dates outside of the U.S.—he has instead immediately expelled many would-be asylum claimants without a court date at all.
Speaking of optics, Biden is also defending Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from having to provide recompense to immigrants who say they were duped into attending a fake college set up by the agency so that the government could deport them. Though they were charged thousands of dollars in tuition, they were never reimbursed—something Vice President Kamala Harris turned her attention to while she was a candidate on the campaign trail.
"This isn't just cruel, it's a waste of taxpayer dollars," she said in 2019. "Officials must be held accountable for this." Instead, it seems, the Biden-Harris administration is holding immigrants "accountable."
UPDATE: Following a backlash, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday afternoon that there had been "some confusion" on the refugee cap. The administration will announce a "final, increased" maximum on May 15, according to Psaki, though she did not provide any further details.