After wavering, President Joe Biden said on Saturday that he will move to increase the nation’s refugee cap, although it remains unclear by how much.
“We’re going to increase the number,” Biden told pool reporters on Saturday. “The problem was that the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up on the border with young people. We couldn’t do two things at once. But now we are going to increase the number.”
The comments come after deputy national security adviser Jon Finer reportedly made clear to refugee resettlement advocates during a Friday night call that Biden plans to work quickly to bring refugees who have already been vetted and cleared to the United States, per CNN sources.
Two people on the call also told the Washington Post that Finer had stressed that the administration would try to resettle refugees as soon as possible, rather than spreading out the admissions until Sept. 30.
The moves laid out on the call, were part of plans to get ahead of a new deadline that the White House set on Friday to increase the cap on refugees by May 15, amid backlash for initially preserving a historically-low Trump-era refugee ceiling.
Biden had faced swift and strong criticism from refugee advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers for initially signing an order on Friday that would keep in place a Trump-era limit on U.S. refugee admissions for the fiscal year.
The order had initially kept in place a 15,000 cap — setting aside an earlier pledge to allow up to 62,500 refugees to enter the country in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 and setting off a wave of criticism.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement amid the furor saying that the administration would set a “final, increased refugee cap” by next month but warned that the new limit was not likely to reach the levels Biden had initially put forward.
“Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely,” she said.
Finer reportedly echoed Psaki’s claim that the Biden White House had been left with a refugee admissions program was “even more decimated than we thought,” citing reduced staffing to oversee processing capacity and a security vetting process that’s slow moving, a CNN source familiar with the call said.
According to the New York Times, during his first foreign policy speech in February, Biden said he would raise the refugee ceiling to 125,000 in the 2021 fiscal year.
Finer reportedly told callers that the 125,000 figure that Biden had previously mentioned was an “aspirational number” and while it remains the administration’s goal it is going to be “a major challenge,” CNN said.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) who spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya as a child before coming to the United States, had criticized the stringent cap, but praised the White House’s decision to reconsider later on Friday.
“Now we will work to make sure the cap isn’t too low, meets the scale of the refugee crisis and our obligations for refugee resettlement,” Omar tweeted.