“We’re gonna increase the numbers,” Biden told reporters at the Wilmington Country Club after a round of golf, noting that the situation on the southern border had complicated things. “We couldn’t do two things at once. And now we’re going to increase the numbers,” he said. Notably, the President called the situation on the southern border a crisis, a word administration officials have avoided using.
Deputy national security adviser Jon Finer told the advocates that Biden wants to work quickly to bring the refugees who have already been vetted and cleared to the United States after a prolonged delay, in which many of their flights were canceled.
The call comes after the White House faced immediate blowback from refugee groups and Democratic and progressive lawmakers for initially saying Friday that Biden would keep this fiscal year’s refugee cap of 15,000, and not raise the cap as he had promised to do — a significant reversal from the Biden administration’s proposal in February to lift the cap to 62,500.
After the flood of criticism, the White House backtracked later Friday and announced Biden would set a “final, increased” refugee cap by mid-May, but added that it’s “unlikely” the number would be as high as the 62,500 cap proposed earlier this year.
Finer said on the call that the 125,000 figure that Biden had floated is an “aspirational number” but remains the administration’s goal and is going to be “a major challenge,” according to a source familiar with the call.
Pressed on the call why the Biden administration is on track to have the worst year of refugee admissions in the program’s history, Finer insisted that “this will not be the number that we end on,” according to the source familiar.
Finer also claimed that the refugee admissions program was “even more decimated than we thought,” with less staffing to deal with processing capacity and a security vetting process that’s slow moving, according to the source familiar.
The White House had said Friday that a “factor” in the decision was that the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal agency under the Health and Human Services Department, had limited capacity, given the growing number of migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border.
Finer said that the administration wanted to be sure that it could meet its responsibilities to support both refugees trying to resettle in the US and unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border.
But refugee resettlement agencies have repeatedly said they’re prepared to take in refugee arrivals.
But Biden delayed approving the proposal increase, resulting in the cancellation of hundreds of resettlement flights and leaving thousands of people who had expected to arrive in the US in limbo.
On Friday, Biden signed the emergency presidential determination that returned to regional allocations, effectively casting a wider net of who can resettle in the US under the current 15,000 refugee ceiling.
As of March 31, only 2,050 refugees had been admitted to the US this fiscal year, according to the Refugee Processing Center.
This story has been updated with comments from Biden.
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez, Kaitlan Collins, Kylie Atwood, Lauren Fox and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.