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Tanzina Vega: President Biden has promised to reverse some of the central pieces of the Trump administration's hard-line immigration policies. Last week, when he announced that he would keep a Trump-era limit on the number of refugees admitted to the United States, many of his allies were shocked. So far, only 2050 refugees have been admitted to the United States this year. That's the lowest number since the refugee program began in 1980. In response to the widespread pushback from within his own party, the Biden administration has backpedaled and now says they will be raising the cap by mid-may. On Monday White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki placed most of the blame on the Trump administration.
Jen Psaki: Given the fact that the processing, the asylum processing, has been hollowed out from the state department and also the ORR, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has also been hollowed out in terms of personnel staffing and financial and funding needs, we have every intention to increase the cap and to make an announcement of that by May 15th at the latest, and I expect it will be sooner than that. The president also remains committed to pursuing the aspirational goal of reaching 125,000 refugees by the end of the next fiscal year.
Tanzina Vega: Catherine Rampell is a columnist for The Washington Post. Catherine, great to have you back.
Catherine Rampell: Great to be here.
Tanzina Vega: Jen Psaki said that-- interesting choice of words here. She said it's an aspirational goal to have 125,000 refugees by the end of the next fiscal year, but she also started by blaming the Trump administration for this very low number of refugees. What do you make of that?
Catherine Rampell: It is true that the Trump administration did everything within its power to dismantle an already pretty broken immigration system, making it harder to come here, not just through the border wall, but basically foreclosing every legal avenue to immigration as well. That included employment-based visas, family-sponsored visas, et cetera, and, of course, refugee admissions. It is true that the Trump administration sabotaged the immigration system. However, some of those elements of the immigration system are easier to repair than others, one of which is just raising the refugee admissions ceiling. The sitting president has almost plenary power to just set the cap on the number of refugees who can come in.
It's not like DACA, where you need Congress to get on board with a permanent legislative fix or you need congressional involvement for fixing all sorts of other elements or even with the border crisis, which is a very complicated issue, and you have to worry about the push factors and the pull factors, and all of that. With refugees, it's relatively straightforward. In February, in fact, Biden had announced that he was going to quadruple the record low refugee admission ceiling set by Trump, from 15,000, again, that was the lowest it had ever been, up to 62,500. Refugee resettlement agencies, which have struggled in the past few years, these are private non-profits who contract with the government celebrated this. But then something very odd happened where the current president, President Biden just didn't sign the paperwork to put his own policy into effect. It is true that it will take a fair amount of work to rebuild all of this infrastructure to get to the 125,000 refugee goal that they have announced for next year, but simply allowing in people who were already in that pipeline, who were ready to go, was a much easier endeavor that, for some reason, Biden was dragging his feet on and had declined to explain what the source of the delay was.
As a result, there were hundreds of refugees who had been booked on flights by the state department by Biden's own state department who were then unbooked because the previous president's restrictions were still in effect. After months of questions for the administration about what was going on, finally, you got to this point last week where the Biden administration said, "Okay, we're actually going to keep Trump's ceiling in place, but we're going to loosen some of the eligibility requirements." I think that they thought that this was a compromise that would get everyone off their backs and, of course, that was not what happened.
Tanzina Vega: Joe Biden has been in politics for nearly half of his life. He had to understand that keeping the Trump level cap was going to receive some type of backlash from his allies, especially since he's essentially going back on what his administration promised they would do. What's your take on how the Democrats have responded to this so far?
Catherine Rampell: I think what happened is that the ghost of Stephen Miller is still haunting the white house, that Stephen Miller and other xenophobes who had advised the previous administration on immigration issues work to confuse the general public about the differences between different groups of immigrants, to convince everyone that all immigrants are somehow intrinsically criminal and illegal. That there is no possible way that you can trust a foreigner, and that they all must be expelled and denied entry to the United States.
I think the Biden folks basically were very worried that the public would read headlines about refugee admissions and refugees are people who are already are currently abroad, who submit to years, and years, and years of background checks and medical screening and things like that before they can come here, people would confuse that with the surge of migrants at the border, many of whom are also persecuted people who are applying for asylum.
They thought, "Well, we're afraid--" I think this is what was going on. I think that they were afraid that Republicans were going to conflate the issues and confuse the public. Rather than just saying, "Okay, we're going to explain to the public how these different groups of immigrants are treated differently under the law and under screening processes, and what our infrastructure is in place, et cetera," they just threw up their hands and said, "Whatever. We're going to get too much blowback if we let these refugees in." They didn't anticipate that what would actually happen is that their allies would say, "Hey, why did you go back on your word?"
Tanzina Vega: Let's be clear here. Biden was vice president under President Obama, who was called the deporter in chief. Is Biden influenced by any Obama era policies or strategy here, or is this purely his own thinking?
Catherine Rampell: If you look at what Biden has said over the years, he has been very pro-immigrant in general and pro-refugee, in particular. He has spoken warmly about the need to welcome in the stranger. He's worked with faith groups on this issue. Faith groups often are very active on refugee admissions issues. I think this is something that he deeply cares about. You may recall also during the primary, the presidential primary, I think there was a bit of a tussle in one of the early Democratic presidential debates about this, where Biden said that he did not necessarily agree with all of the things that the Obama administration had done. Where Biden has talked the talk, it's frustrating that he hasn't always walked the walk once he got into office.
I don't mean to dismiss-- Again, a lot of the very complicated efforts that are necessary to unwind the many, many, like hundreds of Trump policies that need to be unwound, that's all difficult and that will take some time. I think that they are making progress on a number of those issues, reversing the public charge rule, for example, even more symbolic things like changing the verbiage from alien to immigrant or non-citizen throughout regulations and things like that. They are doing quite a bit, but on this particularly visible issue of refugee admissions, it's very perplexing why they've been dragging their feet. The only thing, again, that I can attribute it to is potentially fear of public criticism, particularly from Republicans.
Tanzina Vega: The optics as they are called often in DC speak. Catherine, what effect is this going to have on refugees who are waiting to be admitted to the US.
Catherine Rampell: There are 26 million refugees overall around the world. I think there's something like 1.5 million, 1.4 million who are thought to be in need of resettlement this year. I'm setting a ceiling of 15,000 for admissions is obviously a drop in the bucket. These are people who have been waiting years and years and years often in pretty awful conditions in fear of their life. Those awful conditions have often gotten worse because of the public health crisis. For the people who are waiting, obviously, this is very discouraging. Now, if Biden, in fact, raises the refugee admission ceiling, again, that would provide some level of hope, but we're already more than halfway through the fiscal year. I don't know exactly how much faster we can speed up admissions at this point and not have Biden end up as the president overseeing the lowest refugee admissions level in modern history.
Then the other thing to consider, of course, is that, as I mentioned before, there were a number of refugees who had flights booked and canceled in March, and who had, as a result, given away all of their belongings, vacated whatever housing they were occupying, who were put in an even tougher spot. My hope is by loosening those eligibility standards as Biden has done, at least some of those people will be able to have their travel expedited.
Tanzina Vega: Katherine Rampell is a columnist for The Washington Post. Catherine. Thanks so much.
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