Advocates urge White House to fill key refugee role as Biden weighs admissions target

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Refugee advocates, alarmed by President Joe Biden’s wavering on how many of the world’s most vulnerable he will admit to America, are urging him to “swiftly” name a heavyweight figure to a key position dealing with the sensitive topic.

The request, made in a letter to Biden from Refugee Council USA, a coalition of refugee advocates and resettlement agencies, comes as the administration continues to deliberate over where to set the limit on refugee arrivals for the rest of this fiscal year. It also comes as Senate Democrats are ramping up the pressure on Biden to set the figure higher than he has so far.

Biden originally promised in February to raise that cap to 62,500 refugees for this fiscal year, with the goal of increasing the number to 125,000 the following year. But earlier this month, the administration announced it would instead stick with the 15,000 cap set by former President Donald Trump, who tried to largely eliminate the refugee admissions program. After a furious backlash from within the Democratic Party, the Biden administration then promised it would unveil a figure higher than 15,000 prior to May 15.

It was a major political fumble for the new president, who has largely managed to please progressives and others with his policies so far. Biden’s resistance to committing to the 62,500 figure came amid pressure from Republicans as the number of asylum seekers at the southern border increased. Calling it a “crisis,” GOP lawmakers and Fox News pundits attacked Biden for the growing number of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, making the administration wary of issuing an increase in refugee admissions. Asylum seekers and refugees are distinct from one another and go through separate processing systems.

The administration said one reason it had decided to temporarily keep with the 15,000 figure was that it had inherited a badly decimated refugee program from the Trump administration, one that would take time to rebuild. Refugee resettlement agencies, however, said they’ve been beefing up their capabilities, and that setting a high cap was meant to be an aspirational target anyway, one that would send a signal to the world.

After scathing criticisms from refugee resettlement agencies and Democrats in Congress, the administration began considering increasing the number to Biden’s previously promised cap of 62,500, according to three people familiar with the matter.

But an announcement has yet to come, leaving some refugee advocates frustrated.

In the letter from the Refugee Council USA, which represents a coalition of pro-refugee groups, the activists focus on the still-unfilled position of assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, which is based at the State Department. Under Trump, the bureau was in many ways marginalized in discussions about refugees, and it never had a confirmed assistant secretary to lead it.

The letter, dated Wednesday, asks Biden to “urgently” name a person to the role “who has a deep understanding of the complex issues surrounding forced displacement, refugee resettlement, and other forms of humanitarian protection.”

The appointee, the council writes, “must fundamentally understand the life-saving and humanitarian foundation of the refugee resettlement program; understand the integral part it plays in U.S. foreign policy, national security, and diplomacy; and appreciate the value of its public-private partnership structure.”

A State Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The White House said it had no personnel appointments to preview and pointed to press secretary Jen Psaki’s comments during Monday’s briefing. Psaki told reporters the administration is on track to announce another cap by May 15.

“One of the considerations, at this point in time, as we're determining what the cap will look like is what message we're sending to the world,” Psaki said. “And we are a country, under the Biden-Harris administration, where we want to send a clear message: We are welcoming refugees.”

An advocate who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the letter said that after Biden’s wavering over the refugee cap, activists feel like they need more support inside the administration.

“It feels like having a full leadership team on the refugee side of things would be highly advantageous,” the advocate said. “It might help advance some of our community’s interests more efficaciously.”

Adding to the pressure, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and 33 other senators sent a letter to Biden Tuesday evening calling on him to issue an updated presidential determination raising the refugee cap to 62,500 for this fiscal year.

Refugee advocates are anxiously awaiting the Biden administration’s updated cap for the number of refugees allowed into the country. During a call with members of Biden’s National Security Council last week, leaders of resettlement agencies pressed the White House on the two-month delay in announcing the initial 15,000 cap.

“They definitely messed up because it was two months where not only did they not act, they didn't communicate with us, their partners,” said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit that resettles refugees and is a member of Refugee Council USA. “They didn't communicate with the press. I hope they've learned a lesson and get us back on track to welcome refugees again.”

“They should stop delaying, stick to their own damn number, and start working on the program,” Hetfield said referring to the 62,500 cap promised. He added: “Lives are at stake.”

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