There was no 'confusion,' Biden's decision to not lift Trump's refugee cap was cruel and it's good he's scrambling to walk it back

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  • President Biden announced Friday that his administration will not be increasing the number of refugees the US takes in.
  • The administration reversed the decision hours later after backlash from progressives who said that Biden’s move was a betrayal of the voters.
  • The president’s immigration policies have been a constant disappointment to progressives, Democrats, and marginalized communities.
  • Eoin Higgins is a journalist in New England.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

President Joe Biden announced Friday that the US would not raise the cap on the number of refugees the country takes in higher than the limit set by former President Donald Trump’s — 15,000 — despite previously promising to admit over 60,000 refugees this year.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the left-leaning Democrat from the Bronx who has come under fire from her left flank in recent weeks for downplaying activist criticism of the administration’s immigration policies, tweeted that the decision was “completely and utterly unacceptable.”

“Upholding the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump admin, [including] the historically low + plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “Keep your promise.” 

After hours of mounting pressure from fellow Democrats and other allies, the administration essentially walked back the original announcement. In a statement, which notably didn’t set a new target for the cap, Press Secretary Jen Psaki chalked the entire saga up to “confusion” by the media.

But the reason for the administration backing down was clear: Democrats didn’t hesitate to call Biden out for his betrayal.

Incoherent rationale

The administration reportedly made the initial decision not to raise the refugee cap out of political considerations due to high levels of immigrants arriving at the southern border. Migrants have been entering the country from Mexico in increased numbers in 2021, the result of a number of factors including violence at home, the economic crises of the coronavirus pandemic, and the fallout from decades of US policy in Latin America. 

But while that offers the administration a convenient political rationale for the decision, the facts tell a different story. The US uses different processing for migrants at the border than for refugees, rendering the explanation a mistaken interpretation of policy at best. 

The administration’s walkback of the announcement was similarly haphazard. Psaki’s statement claimed that Biden had been “consulting with his advisors” on refugee policy for weeks and that a final decision would be reached later, despite the president’s initial decision already being presented as a final call. 

In a move typical of her approach to the press, Psaki tried to spin the statement as a corrective to “confusion” over administration policy. But news outlets like the Associated Press weren’t buying it, giving credit to “blowback” from allies like Ocasio-Cortez and others for forcing the administration to back down. 

Biden’s record thus far in the White House on immigration issues doesn’t spark a lot of confidence in the president’s ability to handle the refugee crisis with the empathy and care he touted during the campaign. 

News reports from the first three months of the administration have hardly shown Biden’s policies to be some great departure from the horrors of Trump’s. The administration is packing migrants into facilities until the cells are overflowing — one recent report detailed how in at least one facility, 500 children were crammed into plastic pods built to hold 32 people. And video from GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of conditions in detention centers showed dozens of people in cages with foil blankets, a sobering sight despite the cynicism and hypocrisy behind the senator’s publicizing of the conditions. 

The immigration issue has become a thorn in the side for progressives and left-leaning Democrats who want to believe the best of the Biden administration. But for centrist and right-wing Democrats, is an easier calculation: you start from the position that Biden can do no wrong and backfill your justifications from that conclusion. Those on the left, who have never had a particularly warm relationship with the president, are having a harder time dealing with the brutal, Trump-like immigration policies the president is pursuing. 

Blowback

After months of such frustration, it wasn’t surprising that the refugee announcement was instantly met with condemnation and anger from the left. But in an indication of how fed up even the president’s staunchest allies are with the administration’s dithering on immigration policy, the outrage came from the party’s left and centrist wings alike. 

“It goes directly against our values and risks the lives of little boys and girls huddled in refugee camps around the world,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, who came to the US as a child from Somalia. “I know, because I was one.”

The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, who called the policy a “disgrace” on Friday afternoon, wrote that morning that one of the president’s main duties must be reversing Trump’s policies aimed at ethnically cleansing the country by “engineering a whiter America.”

“If Biden cannot do that, then he has restored little more than Democratic control of the presidency,” Serwer wrote. 

In the Senate, Biden allies Dick Durbin and Richard Blumenthal were equally unsparing in their criticism. Durbin called the decision “unacceptable” and called on the president to reconsider. Blumenthal was more direct, tying Biden’s decision to his predecessor. 

“This cruel policy is no more acceptable now than it was during the Trump Administration,” Blumenthal told HuffPost’s Igor Bobic.

The administration’s decision to heed the political headwinds and reverse itself is welcome, but it shouldn’t have come to this in the first place. Trump’s refugee cap was a policy based in white nationalism and hate and should have been one of the first things that Biden undid upon becoming president. Instead, the administration embraced one of the great crimes of the prior president and showed little to no interest in reversing it. 

Biden himself made a compelling case against the pathetically low cap during a town hall in February.

“Come with me around the world and see people piled up in camps, kids dying, no way out, refugees fleeing from persecution,” Biden said. “We, the United States, used to do our part. We were part of that.”

Some progressives have made much of Biden’s apparent wish to be a big ideas president a la FDR, pushing huge liberal changes in domestic policy and setting the country on a different track with respect to spending and social programs.

But there’s another side to FDR’s legacy. The 32nd president interned Japanese Americans during World War II in what’s now recognized as a major human rights violation, and turned away refugees from Hitler’s Germany, dooming untold thousands to death. 

Biden should reject that part of FDR’s record. The first step is to set a different course on immigration than Trump.

Eoin Higgins is a journalist in New England. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, The Intercept, Vice News, and many other outlets. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook