By Steve Holland and Mica Rosenberg
WASHINGTON (Reuters)—President Joe Biden signed an order on Friday to keep the U.S. refugee cap at a historically low 15,000, a senior administration official said, opting against a plan he had been considering to raise it to 62,500.
The decision was a blow to refugee advocates who had wanted Biden to move swiftly to reverse the policies of his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, who had set the 15,000 cap as a way to limit immigration.
Biden two months ago had considered raising the cap to 62,500 and earlier on Friday a group of Democratic lawmakers renewed appeals for him to act.
Biden’s decision to delay issuing the revised refugee cap for this year appeared tied to concerns over the optics of admitting more refugees amid rising levels of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months, and to not wanting to look "too open" or "soft," another U.S. official with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Under an emergency presidential determination signed by Biden, the United States will offer refugee status to a wider part of the world than had been allowed by Trump, the senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said the United States would use all 15,000 slots under the Biden order and that officials were prepared to consult with Congress should there be a need to increase the number of admissions to address unforeseen emergencies.
The Biden team's review of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program it inherited from the previous administration revealed "it was even more decimated than we’d thought, requiring a major overhaul in order to build back toward the numbers to which we’ve committed," the official said.
"That build-back is and has been happening and will enable us to support much increased admissions numbers in future years," the official said.
Refugee advocates said they were disappointed by the news, saying it was unjustified given that there are 35,000 refugees who have already been security vetted and cleared for entry to the United States and that there are 100,000 at various stages in the pipeline.
They said there is still an incredible need that Biden's decision will not address. Advocates did say that changing the Trump-era allocations could allow for a wider group of refugees to be reconsidered for resettlement.
Refugee groups had expressed frustration that Biden had delayed issuing the cap, which had left refugees who were scheduled to travel stranded.
Mark Hetfield, president of the HIAS resettlement agency, said that around 700 flights were canceled due to the holdup.
"They have lost two months of processing," he said, adding that the delays came on top of pandemic-related restrictions for immigration interviews that had also stalled admissions.
The International Rescue Committee in a statement called it "a disturbing and unjustified retreat" from Biden's earlier pledge, and said that at the current rate of admissions the administration is "on track to resettle the lowest number of refugees of any president in U.S. history."
"This is a time of unprecedented global need, and the U.S. is still far from returning to its historic role of safe haven for the world’s persecuted and most vulnerable," said David Miliband, the New York-based organization's president and chief executive.
Advocates had been pushing for the administration to change the allocation put in place by Trump, which created new categories for refugees subject to religious persecution.
The move comes after Biden signed an executive order pledging to dramatically increase the number of refugees admitted in the 2022 fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1, 2021, to 125,000.
Refugee admissions reached historic lows under Trump, who portrayed refugees as a security threat and made limiting the number of immigrants allowed into the United States a hallmark of his presidency.
Under Biden's new plan, the 15,000 slots would be allocated this way: 7,000 for Africa, 1,000 for East Asia, 1,500 for Europe and Central Asia, 3,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 1,500 from the Near East and South Asia, and 1,000 for an unallocated reserve.
(Additional reporting by Ted Hesson. Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis.)