Joe Biden's big betrayal of a key promise comes at a terrible time
After a steady increase in pressure from outside groups and questions from the media, the Biden administration officially decided on Friday to break its pledge to lift President Donald Trump's strict limits on refugee admissions for the fiscal year ending in September.
Despite previously pledging to raise the cap on refugees from the extremely low level of 15,000 to 62,500, Biden has reversed himself. During the presidential campaign, Biden pledged to raise the cap to 125,000 in the next fiscal year, and as recently as February, Secretary of State Tony Blinken had told Congress the level set under Trump for this fiscal year would be increased more than fourfold.
Many observers had become increasingly worried about Biden's commitment to following through on this objective as the weeks dragged on without official action. Some reports indicated Biden was worried about the "optics" of raising the refugee cap. CNN's Kaitlan Collins on April 8 pressed White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on the issue given the delay, and Psaki insisted Biden was committed to the increase:
Collins: My last question, sorry, is on the refugee cap that the President has proposed raising to 62,500, but he's not actually formally signed the paperwork yet. Is the White House still committed to raising that cap to 62,500 by this fiscal year?
Collins: And so we should expect that before October? And it's not going to change from 62,500? -- is my other question.
Psaki: I don't anticipate that. It is -- that it would change, I should say. It is -- remains -- the President remains committed to raising the cap.
But on Friday, the fears of refugee advocates were realized.
The New York Times reported:
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the decision-making, said the administration grew concerned that the surge of border crossings by unaccompanied minors was too much and had already overwhelmed the refugee branch of the Department of Health and Human Services. But migrants at the border seeking asylum are processed in an entirely separate system than refugees fleeing persecution overseas.
It also noted:
The administration will change subcategories for refugee slots created by the Trump administration that gave priority to Iraqis who had worked for the U.S. military and people, primarily Christians, who are facing religious persecution. But the classification also disqualified most other Muslim and African refugees. As a region, Africa has the most displaced people needing resettlement. An administration official said the change would allow the Biden administration to fill the cap of 15,000, although it would also leave thousands of additional refugees cleared to fly to the United States stranded in camps.
This broken promise from Biden is a cowardly betrayal of his many supporters who were horrified by Trump's aggression toward and disregard for asylum seekers and refugees. Prior to the revelation of Biden's reversal, The Atlantic writer Adam Serwer said on Twitter: "Biden's delay in reversing Trump's discriminatory refugee restrictions is a violation of his campaign promises and the reasons he gave for running in the first place." In a new piece, he wrote:
Restoring "the soul of the nation" cannot mean simply unseating Trump. It also has to mean reversing the policies his administration put in place in an attempt to codify into law his racial and sectarian conception of American citizenship. If Biden cannot do that, then he has restored little more than Democratic control of the presidency. And should he fail to rescind these policies simply because he fears criticism of those who enabled Trump's cruelty to begin with, it will be nothing short of cowardice.
"My faith teaches me that we should be a nation that once again welcomes the stranger and shows a preferential option for the poor, remembering how so many of us and our ancestors came here in a similar way," Biden wrote in 2019. "It's not enough to just wish the world were better. It's our duty to make it so."
So far, Biden has done a lot that is popular — accelerating vaccine distribution, passing the American Rescue Plan, proposing a big infrastructure and spending package. And he may fear that increasing the refugee cap is unpopular and will derail the momentum that he has. Indeed, one Morning Consult poll found that increasing refugee admissions was the only major Biden priority that was unpopular.
But one reason for passing popular policies that meet people's needs is to have more cover and trust with the public when taking values-based policy steps that might trigger some discontent. And it's not as if raising the cap is a bait-and-switch for Biden — he campaigned on letting in more refugees, so he shouldn't feel the need to shy away from it now. It is one of the easiest ways for a president to drastically improve a large number of human lives, saving families from dire conditions in refugee camps, with little or no downside.
And there's likely no upside at all to breaking this promise. The anti-immigrant right wing will not give Biden any credit at all for backing down; instead, it will likely just encourage them to increase their demands even further. They'll cite Biden's capitulation on this promise as evidence that refugees really are a problem, and perhaps say that letting in any refugees is a problem.
This is a particularly terrible time for Biden to be retreating on the immigration issue, too, because anti-immigrant bigotry is resurgent. Fox News's Tucker Carlson, an influential leader in conservatism, is openly endorsing the white supremacist "replacement theory," which Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson recently echoed. And on Friday, a group of far-right Republicans announced the launch of new, openly nativist caucus based on "Anglo Saxon political traditions."
Maybe this increasing sentiment on the right, combined with manufactured right-wing outrage about the border, has spooked Biden into capitulating on this issue. But appeasing this bigotry won't work. It will only embolden it.
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