Biden backtracks after backlash, vows to keep pledge to let in more refugees

Utah group says allowing only 15,000 refugees in this year would not meet the pent-up need.

(Andrew Harnik | AP) President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Washington.

Back in February, President Joe Biden directed his government to make a “down payment” on his promise to boost the number of refugees allowed into the country.

He wanted to bring in up to 62,500 displaced people, far more than the 15,000 that former President Donald Trump had authorized.

On Friday, Biden’s White House muddled the goal, first telling reporters that he’d keep the level Trump put in place for this fiscal year, and then later saying he would come out with a new number a month from now.

“The president’s directive today has been the subject of some confusion,” press secretary Jen Psaki said. It was also the subject of considerable pushback from supporters of the refugee program in Congress and elsewhere.

That includes in Utah, one of the most welcoming states for refugees.

“Fifteen thousand is a very small number,” said Aden Batar, who leads the resettlement program at Catholic Community Services of Utah. “I don’t think that would meet the need for those who have waited so long.”

The Biden administration is struggling with this decision after growing concerned about the rise in migrants trying to cross the southern border, many of them seeking asylum, according to The New York Times.

But migrants, even those seeking asylum, go through a separate process than refugees. These people, from war-ravaged nations such as Congo, Syria and Iraq, endure extensive, often yearslong processes, to be cleared for entry into the country.

“We know there is an issue at the border. That is not something new,” Batar said. “The border issue has been there for many years.”

After Biden’s earlier announcement promising a rise to 62,500 refugees, the State Department started ramping up — as did the resettlement agencies in Utah and other states. But at that time Biden hadn’t yet signed a presidential determination, which is needed to change the program. That meant flights were canceled, leaving some families disappointed after having been told they were about to be reunited.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Ismail Al Obaidi is a refugee from Iraq. He arrived in Utah in 2016, after having spent three years in Turkey. He came with his wife and two of his children. An adult son and his family made it to Utah last September. But his sister-in-law, Huda, her husband, Hatam, and their three kids have waited eight years in Turkey, hoping to reunite with the family.

Al Obaidi told The Salt Lake Tribune through an interpreter that his sister-in-law has had her final background interview scheduled twice and then scrapped with no explanation. He tracked the 2020 election, hoping that Biden would win because he felt the new president would allow his family to reunite.

“I like the Democrat because they approved my case when [Barack] Obama was president and the previous president, Trump, he put in the travel ban that stopped everything,” Al Obaidi said earlier this week. “They are waiting after the new President Biden, waiting for news if there is any more movement in their cases in Turkey.”

(Tyler Hicks | The New York Times) Ethiopian refugees in Hamdayet, Sudan, the first stop for new arrivals after crossing the border, Dec. 4, 2020.

Trump’s 15,000 cap is the lowest in the modern era of the refugee program, which dates back to 1980. Biden had promised not only to raise it to 62,500 for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, but he also promised to expand it to 125,000 in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

On Friday, Biden signed a presidential determination. It kept the cap this year at 15,000, while also changing where refugees can come from, increasing the number from African countries and predominantly Muslim nations, where more people are in need. Batar found that move to be heartening.

The White House released a statement Friday afternoon that said the president will come up with a new refugee threshold by May 15 and that the administration would be living up to its 125,000 promise for next fiscal year.

Catholic Community Services of Utah and the International Rescue Committee are the two refugee resettlement agencies in the state. Last year, they welcomed 238 people into Utah, a far cry from the more than 1,200 they helped relocate in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration. These organizations want to assist 1,200 refugees a year if Biden agrees to expand the program.