WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Joe Biden on Monday formally raised the nation's cap on refugee admissions to 62,500 this year, weeks after facing bipartisan blowback for his delay in replacing the record-low ceiling of 15,000 set by former President Donald Trump.
Biden last month moved to expand the eligibility criteria for resettlements, removing one roadblock to refugees entering the U.S. put in place by Trump, but he had initially stopped short of lifting the annual cap, with aides saying they did not believe it was necessary. But Biden faced sharp pushback for not at least taking the symbolic step of authorizing more refugees to enter the U.S. this year and swiftly reversed course.
Biden, in a statement Monday, said the new limit "erases the historically low number set by the previous administration," adding that Trump's cap "did not reflect America's values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees."
"It is important to take this action today to remove any lingering doubt in the minds of refugees around the world who have suffered so much, and who are anxiously waiting for their new lives to begin," Biden added.
Biden said it was a "sad truth" that the U.S. would not meet the 62,500 cap by the end of the fiscal year in September, given the pandemic and limitations on the country's resettlement capabilities -- some of which his administration has attributed to the Trump administration's policies to restrict immigration. That said, they maintain Biden remains committed to setting the cap at 125,000 for the 2022 fiscal year that starts in October, while they were working to improve U.S. capabilities to process refugees to be able to accept as many of them as possible under the new cap.
Refugee resettlement agencies applauded the action after criticizing Biden for months for letting Trump's cap remain.
"We are absolutely thrilled and relieved for so many refugee families all across the world who look to the U.S. for protection," said Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, head of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of nine resettlement agencies in the nation. "It has a felt like a rollercoaster ride, but this is one critical step toward rebuilding the program and returning the U.S. to our global humanitarian leadership role."
Secretary of State Antony Blinken notified Congress on Feb. 12 of a plan to raise the ceiling on admissions to 62,500, but no presidential determination followed.
Then in an emergency declaration on April 16, Biden stated the admission of up to 15,000 refugees set by Trump this year "remains justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest."
That set off a deluge of criticism from his allies on Capitol Hill. Second-ranking Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois called that initial limit "unacceptable." New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter to Biden that "failing to issue a new Determination undermines your declared purpose to reverse your predecessor's refugee policies."
Within hours the White House made a quick course correction. The administration vowed to increase the historically low cap by May 15 -- but said it probably would be not be as high as the 62,500.
In the end, Biden returned to that figure, though agencies agree it is unlikely to be reached.
"We are dealing with a refugee resettlement process that has been eviscerated by the previous administration and we are still in a pandemic," said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, a Maryland-based Jewish nonprofit that resettles refugees. "It is a challenge, but it's important he sends a message to the world that the U.S. is back and prepared to welcome refugees again."
The new allocation instituted by Biden added more slots for refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Central America and ended Trump's restrictions on resettlements from Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Watson reported from San Diego.