By Priscilla Alvarez, Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood, CNN
Updated: Fri, 09 Apr 2021 20:31:55 GMT
In his first days in office, President Joe Biden proposed expanding the number of refugees who could be admitted to the United States after years of historic lows, but more than two months later that increase remains unsigned despite Biden's pledge, perplexing even officials within his own administration and frustrating allies on Capitol Hill.
"It's a mystery as to why it hasn't been signed," an administration official told CNN.
In February, the administration proposed raising the year's refugee cap -- which dictates how many refugees can be admitted to the US -- to 62,500, a significant increase from former President Donald Trump's 15,000. Shortly afterward, the relevant department secretaries, including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, briefed lawmakers on the plan -- a necessary step in the process.
But without Biden's final signature on what's known as the presidential determination, the proposed cap has stalled. 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 signing the PD has pretty much assured that they're not going to meet 15,000 this fiscal year," said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, a refugee resettlement organization, adding: "They've actually put the program in worse shape. They've actually done harm by not signing the PD."
The nine resettlement agencies, along with Refugee Council USA, urged Biden to sign off on the higher cap Friday, calling it "imperative," according to a letter addressed to the President and shared with 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.
"What Trump did is he took off geographic allocations, replaced them with categories of types of refugees who could come here. Refugees not on the list can't come here at all, this year anyway," Hetfield said, adding that at the very least they'd like to see those restrictions lifted soon.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki maintained Thursday that Biden was committed to raising the refugee ceiling to 62,500 this fiscal year but she didn't provide a timeline. "The President remains committed to raising the cap," Psaki said.
But that's done little to assuage the concerns of lawmakers and advocates seeking answers on the delay.
"He has not signed them yet, and I do not know why he has not yet signed those documents," Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, previously told CNN.
Some have speculated that the influx of migrants at the US southern border has taken priority, even though border issues are separate from the refugee program.
"I understand that there is obviously an asylum crisis at the border, but asylum and refugees are two distinct populations," one Republican congressional aide said. "There's no reason why that should be distracting from the refugee processing situation unless you conflate those two, which they should not be doing."
State Department spokesperson Ned Price suggested the delay was due to needing to get the refugee program back into shape after the Trump administration.
"The United States refugee program was left in a state of disarray by the past administration. There is a great deal of rebuilding that needs to take place in order to have a refugee program that allows us to achieve what we want us to achieve in a way that is both effective and that is safe," he said.
While the program took a hit after years of historic low arrivals under Trump, there are refugees prepared to travel now.
The Republican congressional aide said Price's comments seemed like "a convenient excuse."
"There's 26 million refugees out there, according to [the United Nations refugee agency], and it is the hardest, worst cases that go through the most serious background check of anyone who enters the United States. And we're sitting here like twiddling our thumbs because he can't figure out how to sign a piece of paper?" the aide said, adding that the State Department had told them the presidential determination should be coming out "shortly."
Another congressional aide said advocates are frustrated and lawmakers are confused by the lack of communication on the matter from the administration.
More than 260 former refugee leaders sent a letter to Biden on Monday calling on him to lift the refugee cap as proposed earlier this year, citing the more than 700 scheduled flights that have been canceled.
"We have had enough in the last four years and we are not willing to accept any less than what we were promised," one of the refugees who signed the letter, Basma Alawee, a refugee from Iraq who came to the US in 2010, told CNN.