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Biden resists raising refugee cap over political optics, sources say

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WASHINGTON, DC — President Joe Biden has resisted signing off on raising the Trump-era refugee cap because of political optics, sources have told CNN.

The President’s hesitation comes as the administration faces heat from Republicans and Democrats for its handling of an influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border. But the situation at the US southern border is separate from the refugee program, which dates back decades and has a thorough vetting process in place for refugees overseas to resettle in the US.

One Democratic aide described what is unfolding as “vintage Biden” in terms of preserving his options so that he can maintain decision-making space for the one that best suits him politically.

Democratic lawmakers and advocates, frustrated with the delay, have tried to seek answers from the administration but have fallen short. When asked by reporters about next steps, administration officials haven’t provided clarity, instead maintaining that the President is committed to the issue. Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden was committed to raising the refugee ceiling to 62,500 this fiscal year but she didn’t provide a timeline.

A White House spokesperson reiterated in a statement that Biden “remains committed to rebuilding the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” adding that a “new Presidential Determination is under active consideration.”

“In the meantime, the work to rejuvenate the program to support increased refugee admissions is well underway,” the spokesperson said.

In February, the State Department presented Congress with a plan to expand the refugee cap put in place by former President Donald Trump — set at 15,000 — to allow up to 62,500 refugees to be resettled in the United States. As is normally the process, the State Department and White House had already agreed on the number.

The proposal was also in line with Biden’s commitment during the campaign to raise the refugee ceiling and return the US to admitting a higher number of refugees after historic low arrivals under Trump. But with the situation on the US-Mexico border heating up, the proposal — and accompanying paperwork — stalled.

Left in limbo

The delay resulted in the cancellation of hundreds of refugee flights and left thousands of people expecting to arrive in the US after a years-long process in limbo.

Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, a refugee resettlement organization, shared the story of one nearly 30-year-old Congolese woman who had been vetted and approved to fly to the US in early March. When Biden’s signature didn’t come, her ticket was canceled, and because she is now in her third trimester, she can no longer travel.

Another proposal has now sprung up: The administration is considering stripping restrictions put in place by Trump’s Presidential Determination to cast a wider net of refugees who can arrive in the US, until the ceiling is raised, CNN has learned.

The delay in raising the refugee cap is at odds with the goal Biden declared during his first foreign policy address at the State Department.

“I’m approving an executive order to begin the hard work of restoring our refugee admissions program to help meet the unprecedented global need,” Biden said. “This executive order will position us to be able to raise the refugee admissions back up to 125,000 persons for the first full fiscal year of the Biden-Harris administration. And I’m directing the State Department to consult with Congress about making a down payment on that commitment as soon as possible.”

State Department spokesperson Ned Price previously suggested the delay was due to needing to get the refugee program back into shape after the Trump administration. But while the program took a hit after years of historic low arrivals under Trump, there are refugees prepared to travel now. Refugee resettlement agencies also tell CNN that they are ready to get to work, once the administration gives the go-ahead for more refugees.

Frustration continues on Capitol Hill, with Democratic senators still struggling to understand why Biden hasn’t moved forward with the Presidential Determination. Their questions to the administration have gone unanswered, leaving them to believe that political calculations are at play.

The Biden administration’s discretionary budget request includes asking for additional funds to resettle a larger number of refugees, when compared with the Trump years. The disconnect between that request and the fact that Biden has not yet signed off on the refugee program proposal has been noticed by frustrated members of Congress.

“I don’t know why there has been a delay on the executive orders. I keep my fingers crossed that it will be changed quickly,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who’s the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Pressure campaign

In recent weeks, outside groups have begun a pressure and education campaign to flag to lawmakers the urgency of having Biden sign the Presidential Determination.

The issue is not just about numbers. Under the Trump administration, new restrictions limited which refugees were eligible to come to the US. Moving back to a regional model, advocates argue, will help begin to correct a backlog that started under Trump.

The groups “want to give (Biden) some breathing space, but it is causing some real hardship,” Durbin said of his conversations with the organizations.

Democratic lawmakers worry that part of the White House’s calculation is that with the flow of migrants on the southern border, raising the refugee cap now — even though it is an entirely different program — could become a political problem. But many Democratic senators argue that it’s a separate program and should be treated as such.

“The refugee issue is pretty bleak right now. We need realistic numbers. These are people who come to our country in an orderly way. … In a way, it is part of an overall strategy to prevent the unpredictable flow. The numbers are important to get at a realistic level,” Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, told CNN.

As of March 31, only 2,050 refugees had been admitted to the United States this fiscal year under Trump’s 15,000 cap, according to the Refugee Processing Center, which is part of the State Department. That’s unlikely to change much unless the cap is modified, given restrictions put in place by the former administration.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, said he was hoping to hear something soon.

“Team Biden said they were going to return to a more normal posture in the US with respect to refugees, and they haven’t yet done it,” Kaine said. “If you did every program like the refugee program, people would be really happy because the level of vetting is so significant, but why is that program clamped down when people are trying to do the right thing?”

Kaine said he is giving the administration some benefit of the doubt as it fills out its team, but senators are asking questions.

“I have raised the issue. I don’t have a clear path on exactly what the issue is on Presidential Determination,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware who’s a close Biden ally.

“It is perfectly clear to me that President Biden’s approach toward refugees is fundamentally different from President Trump’s and both the budget requests and the policy decisions being made at the Department of Homeland Security will have profoundly different results.”

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