President Biden will limit the number of refugees allowed into the United States this year to the historically low level set by the Trump administration, reversing an earlier promise to welcome more than 60,000 people fleeing war and persecution into the country.
The decision signals Mr. Biden’s hesitant approach to rebuilding an immigration system gutted by his predecessor, who tried to close off the United States to immigrants. It also comes as the United States struggles with a surge of unaccompanied children and teenagers at the Mexican border.
Even though the migrants at the border go through a separate vetting process than those fleeing persecution overseas, Friday’s directive comes amid growing concerns that the surge of border crossings had already overwhelmed the refugee branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, according to two senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the decision-making.
Mr. Biden’s decision is a clear reversal from his promise in February to raise the cap of 15,000 refugees set by the Trump administration — the lowest in the program’s history. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken notified Congress on Feb. 12 that the administration planned to allow up to 62,500 refugees to enter the country in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, citing “grave humanitarian concerns” around the world.
But Mr. Biden for two months did not sign a presidential determination that would have allowed refugees to board flights to the United States.
Maintaining the Trump-era admissions level of 15,000 leaves thousands of refugees who have been approved to travel to the United States stranded in camps around the world. Roughly 35,000 refugees have already been vetted by the U.S. government and are prepared to travel to the United States.
While those who step on American soil are legally entitled to apply for asylum and can eventually appear before an immigration judge in the United States, refugees apply for protection overseas and are forced to clear multiple levels of vetting that can often take years.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement and is responsible for sheltering migrant minors who cross the border but has a separate budget line for assisting refugees who come from overseas. The State Department also is the agency that assists refugees for the first three months after their arrival.
Although Thursday’s directive will maintain the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the country, Mr. Biden did make changes to the program. The Trump-era program gave priority to Iraqis who had worked for the U.S. military and people, primarily Christians, who are facing religious persecution. But the classification also disqualified most other Muslim and African refugees. As a region, Africa has the most displaced people needing resettlement.
Mr. Biden will now welcome refugees to the United States based on their region they are fleeing — returning to a system used by the United States before the changes made by the Trump administration. The carved out slots include 7,000 Africans, 1,000 East Asians, 1,500 Europeans and Central Asians, 3,000 Latin Americans and the Caribbeans and those from the Near East and South Asia.
That change will allow many of the 700 refugees to travel to the United States after they had their flights to the United States canceled when Mr. Biden delayed designating the admissions level.
Biden administration officials said the change was necessary to welcome the 15,000 refugees into the United States. Mr. Biden still plans to raise the level of refugee admissions to 125,000 in October for the next fiscal year, the administration official said.
Still, immigration advocates were not satisfied.
“The rightful erasure of discriminatory admissions categories does not dispense with the need for a higher number of refugees to be admitted,” said David Miliband, president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee.