The United States

Biden raises refugee cap to 62,500 but admits it will not be reached

President takes back campaign pledge after strong criticism from within and outside Democratic ranks

3 min
A family of migrants, from Guatemala, attempt to cross the Rio Bravo into Juarez, Mexico, on March 30, 2021 with the intention of seeking political asylum in the United States.

BarcelonaTwo weeks ago he said the opposite, but he has finally backed down. Joe Biden announced early this morning that he will raise to 62,500 people the admission cap for refugees in the United States, after criticism rained down on him for having said he would keep the cap at 15,000, the historic minimum that Donald Trump had set. It was one of his campaign promises and, in the wake of the earthquake within and outside the ranks of the Democratic Party, and the accusation that he was betraying the migrants who helped him win the election, Biden has ended up taking back the pledge, even though he has watered it down.

In a statement he has proclaimed that it "erases the historically low number set by the previous administration, which did not reflect the values of the United States, a country that welcomes and supports refugees". For Jacqueline Bhabha, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Biden's hesitation can be explained by "anti-immigration political pressures that had cynically linked the situation on the border with Mexico to the size of the refugee intake": "But these are two entirely different things: one is a spontaneous process and the other a centralised and managed procedure. Fortunately, progressive voices have urged the Biden administration to live up to its election commitments and rebuild the refugee protection system that Trump destroyed".

However, the president has since admitted that the goal could not be achieved this year because the system is not capable of processing all of these applications. An estimated 115,000 people are waiting for their requests to be resolved because of the administrative blockade imposed by the Republican administration. So far, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has granted asylum to only 33,000 people, who are already waiting to travel to the United States. Only 2,000 have received a green card this fiscal year. This complicated process can take two years. Biden further argues that it is not so easy to de-trump immigration policy: "We will try hard to complete the rigorous screening process for the refugees who are waiting, but the sad reality is that we will fall short of 62,500 admissions this year". Biden is referring to fiscal years, which in the United States run from September to September. In fact, in the election programme Biden had set a much more ambitious goal: a quota of 125,000 admissions in September 2022, a milestone he has considered "difficult to achieve".

John Palmer, a professor in UPF immigration group, puts the figure in context: "It's a clear improvement over the 15,000 refugee cap set by the Trump administration and is an important step in restoring the reception program after Trump's attempt to dismantle it. But 62,500 is a very small number compared to the need for refugee resettlement worldwide, and is far less than the thresholds before" the Republican's time in the White House: in 1981, Ronald Reagan set a cap of 217,000 refugee admissions.

Polarisation in the US

Biden finds himself in the crossfire of US polarisation. Just as Republicans, still imbued with America First, reproach him for the increase in arrivals of undocumented migrants on the border with Mexico (Texas recorded the largest number of arrivals in the last fifteen years in March), his base wants him to break with one of the darkest chapters of Trump's legacy. It is true that the reception programme needs resources and organisation, but Palmer reminds us that it is not just a problem of time: "The question is to what extent the administration is willing to defend reception politically". For the migration expert, despite the improvements introduced by Biden, "the big problems of the US immigration system remain: it causes unacceptable harm to a large number of people".

One of the thorniest problems of Biden's first hundred days in the White House in immigration matters has been the so-called Article 42 expulsions, covered by an obscure public health law of 1944 and under the pretext of the pandemic, which has meant the mass expulsion of migrants who had crossed the border from Mexico without documentation: with the new administration, 240,000 people have been expelled from the United States under this article in four months (Trump expelled 630,000 in about eight months, since the pandemic began). As the Los Angeles Times reported a few days ago, defenseless women and children have been exposed to criminal gangs after being deported to Mexico and their families in the United States have been extorted.

For the Harvard professor, "with a historic number of refugees in the world and less than 1% resettled, all wealthy states have a moral obligation to welcome them generously. As one of the largest and richest countries, the US has a particular obligation to show empathetic solidarity with those who have been forced to leave their homes, their families and everything that makes life worth living".