Where Biden Has Fallen Short on Immigration [Updated]
The Biden administration has done a great deal of good in reversing many of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. Examples include ending Trump’s anti-Muslim travel bans, terminating or allowing to expire the previous administration’s bans on most immigration and work visas (adopted under the pretext of combating the Covid pandemic), revoking the border “emergency” declaration and the accompanying diversion of federal funds to build the wall, and fully reinstating DACA. The administration has also laid out an ambitious legislative agenda to legalize most current undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and make it easier for many new immigrants to enter. Even if that agenda is unlikely to pass anytime soon, it still serves a valuable function in moving the “Overton window” on political debate.
The above list—which isn’t exhaustive—should give pause to those (including some libertarians) who claim that Biden’s immigration policies are no better than Trump’s. But it is also true that there are several immigration issues on which Biden has so far fallen woefully short.
Perhaps the most egregious is the administration’s decision to break the president’s promise to raise the annual refugee admission ceiling to 125,000 (62,500 for the rest of the current fiscal year) [but see update below]. Instead, Biden will keep in place Trump’s historically low ceiling of 15,000, albeit while dropping the latter’s restrictions on admission of refugees from many African and Muslim-majority nations. This decision may even lead Biden to break Trump’s record for having the lowest refugee admissions ever. Liberal Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell summarizes:
Biden has spoken warmly of immigrants in general and refugees in particular…. Shortly after taking office, he announced plans to rebuild the refugee resettlement program, which had been hobbled by years of successively lower refugee admissions ceilings set by Trump. Biden said this process would begin by quadrupling the record-low ceiling that Trump had set for fiscal 2021 (taking it from 15,000 to 62,500)….
Biden announced all this in early February. His State Department submitted a detailed report to Congress on the new ceiling and eligibility criteria days later. State Department officials began booking flights for refugees who had been waiting for years — people who had been fully screened for national security and public health concerns and deemed ready to go.
Then, astoundingly, Biden blocked his own policy from taking effect.
Without explanation, Biden never signed the paperwork, called a “presidential determination,” legally necessary to lift Trump’s restrictions. So, roughly 715 desperate refugees whose travel arrangements were made by Biden’s own State Department — many of whom had given away their possessions and vacated their homes in anticipation of relocation — had their tickets abruptly canceled.
There is no justification for this reversal, and the administration hasn’t offered any kind of policy rationale for it. For some of the refugees barred by the decision, the issue is literally a matter of life and death. At the very least, they will be condemned to spend many more months under conditions of severe privation.
The media reports anonymous White House sources indicating that it was caused by fear of “political optics” relating to the situation at the southern border. In reality, the refugee policy has no connection to the border situation, because the refugees are not crossing that border, and would not be undocumented migrants, having been already vetted and approved for entry. The administration’s fear of political backlash—if that is indeed the cause of the reversal—is also grossly overblown. In reality, few Americans even know what the refugee limit is (surveys consistently show most have no idea how much immigration there is in general and other fairly basic aspects of immigration policy), and those few who both know and would be angry about the administration’s decision to raise it are likely to be hardcover immigration restrictionists whose support Biden is highly unlikely to get, short of fully embracing a Trumpian agenda across the board.
The problems at the border that may have spooked the administration on the refugee cap are themselves largely a consequence of another flawed Biden policy: the decision to keep in place Trump’s Title 42 policy of expelling nearly all migrants at the southern border, while making an exception for unaccompanied minors. Predictably, this has le