“We’re going to increase the number,” Biden told reporters of the refugee cap as he left the Wilmington Country Club. “We couldn’t do two things at once. But now we are going to increase the number.”
Despite the Democratic triumphs of winning the White House and control of the US Senate, progressives have watched in frustration this year as many of their key legislative priorities — including voting rights, gun control measures and policing reform — have been stalled by the limitations of a 50-50 Senate and their inability to find the 60 votes that are needed to overcome the filibuster.
Expecting a break from Trump
The notion that Biden would abandon his campaign promise to raise the historically low refugee cap — a move fully within the powers of the presidency — drew fierce blowback, in part because former President Donald Trump’s cap was a symbol of what progressives viewed as the racist and nativist instincts of his administration. Trump often demonized refugees at his 2020 campaign rallies, claiming that he would turn swing states like Minnesota “into a refugee camp.”
“It goes directly against our values and risks the lives of little boys and girls huddled in refugee camps around the world,” she tweeted. “I know, because I was one.”
New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reprimanded Biden on Twitter by reminding him that the Democratic coalition that elected him is fragile — and that his vow to “welcome immigrants” led many to vote for him “based on that promise.”
“Upholding the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump admin, incl the historically low + plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong. Keep your promise,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.
In a sharply worded statement, Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who is the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said it was “unacceptable and unconscionable” that Biden was going to maintain Trump’s “harmful, xenophobic, and racist refugee cap.” The decision, she added, demonstrated that Biden “has broken his promise to restore our humanity.”
It wasn’t just the far left hitting Biden. Many other Democrats, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, and House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler also slammed the decision. Ultimately, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday afternoon that Biden would set an “increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year” by next month. But she 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.”
The Biden administration’s equivocation on the refugee cap reflects the heat they are facing about the crisis on the southern border in the middle of a pandemic — and the fear that Americans will conflate the two issues, even though they are distinctly different policy areas.
Both Biden and Psaki alluded to the linkage between the two issues as the administration backtracked on Friday and Saturday.
As recently as February, Biden had spoken about addressing the suffering faced by the more than 80 million displaced people around the world as a moral issue that he planned to confront as President. At that time he said he was approving an executive order that would position the US to raise refugee admissions back up to 125,000 during the first full fiscal year of his administration. He noted that America’s “moral leadership on refugee issues was a point of bipartisan consensus” for decades, including when he served in the US Senate.
The view that America must take a lead in sheltering the most vulnerable and endangered people around the world is shared by many progressives, who swallowed their disappointments when Biden defeated Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.
Their vociferous response to the administration’s backpedaling on Friday put Biden on notice that when he can use the power of the presidency to begin restoring America’s image as a humane, tolerant and benevolent force in the world after four years of Trump, they simply aren’t willing to accept the administration’s political excuses or delays — and will hold Biden to the promises he made to win their support.