An Early Promise Broken: Inside Biden’s Reversal on Refugees 1

What had been an easy promise on the campaign trail — to reverse what Democrats called President Donald J. Trump’s “racist” limits on accepting refugees — has become a test of what is truly important to President Biden.

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WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was in the Oval Office, pleading with President Biden.

In the meeting, on March 3, Mr. Blinken implored the president to end Trump-era restrictions on immigration and to allow tens of thousands of desperate refugees fleeing war, poverty and natural disasters into the United States, according to several people familiar with the exchange.

But Mr. Biden, already under intense political pressure because of the surge of migrant children at the border with Mexico, was unmoved. The attitude of the president during the meeting, according to one person to whom the conversation was later described, was, essentially: Why are you bothering me with this?

What had been an easy promise on the campaign trail — to reverse what Democrats called President Donald J. Trump’s “racist” limits on accepting refugees — has become a test of what is truly important to the new occupant of the White House, according to an account of his decision making from more than a dozen Biden administration officials, refugee resettlement officials and others.

Mr. Biden was eager for the praise that would come from vastly increasing Mr. Trump’s record-low limit, people familiar with his thinking said, and he decided to increase the cap even earlier than the usual start of the fiscal year, Oct. 1.

But only weeks into Mr. Biden’s presidency, immigration and the border had already become major distractions from his efforts to defeat the coronavirus pandemic and to persuade Congress to invest trillions of dollars into the economy — issues championed by aides like Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, as more central to his presidency.

Now, a decision to raise the refugee limit to 62,500 — as Mr. Biden had promised only weeks earlier to members of Congress — would invite from Republicans new attacks of hypocrisy and open borders even as the president was calling for bipartisanship. It was terrible timing, he told officials, especially with federal agencies already struggling to manage the highest number of migrant children and teenagers at the border in more than a decade.

The exchange on March 3 took place shortly after Mr. Biden had dispatched Mr. Blinken and two other cabinet secretaries to formally tell Congress that he would increase refugee admissions during the next six months to 62,500 people from the annual 15,000-person limit set by Mr. Trump.

Instead, the president undercut his emissaries and left hundreds of refugees in limbo for weeks.

For the next month and a half, Mr. Biden’s aides stalled, repeatedly telling reporters and refugee advocacy groups that the president still intended to follow through. But the delay had real-world consequences: Flights were canceled for more than 700 refugees who had already been thoroughly screened and issued tickets to travel to the United States.

Under pressure to let them in, members of Mr. Biden’s staff came up with a compromise they hoped would satisfy the president and resettlement agencies. They would keep the 15,000-refugee limit, but lift Trump-era restrictions that would allow more flights to resume. On Friday, White House officials informed reporters of the new policy.

The backlash was immediate.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, posted on Twitter: “Say it ain’t so, President Joe. This is unacceptable.”

Within hours, the president backtracked. The White House issued a statement saying Mr. Biden still intended to allow more refugees into the country and promising to reveal more details by May 15.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, blamed the episode on “messaging” mistakes. But for Mr. Biden, it was another example of his administration’s struggle to make good on a promise to restore the United States’ reputation as a sanctuary for the most vulnerable — a pledge Democrats eagerly made during the presidential campaign to distance themselves from Mr. Trump. It was also an early lesson in what happens when a president builds up expectations and fails to follow through.

In a statement on World Refugee Day last summer, Mr. Biden, then a candidate for president, made his support explicit.

“I will increase the number of refugees we welcome into this country, setting an annual global refugee target of 125,000,” he said, promising to “further raise it over time commensurate with our responsibility.”

After winning the White House, his transition team set about making good on that pledge, debating the pros and cons in a series of meetings in December. With only six months left in the fiscal year, Mr. Biden’s advisers recommended he could go beyond his campaign pledge.

Presidents normally raise refugee admissions at the end of the fiscal year. But Mr. Biden would allow up to 62,500 refugees to enter the United States before Oct. 1 by declaring the “grave humanitarian concerns” around the world an emergency.

The president made no mention of refugees in a flurry of immigration-related executive orders on his first day in office. But on Feb. 4, only two weeks later, he announced his plans with a flourish during a speech at the State Department.

“It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do,” Mr. Biden said. He did not mention the 62,500 number, but repeated his promise of 125,000 starting in October and added, “I’m directing the State Department to consult with Congress about making a down payment on that commitment as soon as possible.”

On Feb. 12, the president delivered on the specific commitment to Congress, pledging to resettle 62,500 refugees fleeing war and persecution at home. Mr. Blinken delivered the message to lawmakers along with Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, and Norris Cochran, the acting health secretary at the time.

“They went there and presented a really thoughtful plan, and we were so thrilled,” said Mark J. Hetfield, the chief executive of Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a resettlement agency.

“And then,” Mr. Hetfield said, “it just evaporated overnight.”

The effect of the president’s delay in Washington was felt throughout the world.

Resettlement agencies had already booked flights for hundreds of refugees.

Such immigrants must be identified as refugees by the United Nations or other organizations and clear several rounds of vetting that can take, on average, two years, according to the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy organization. Roughly 33,000 refugees have received such approval, and about 115,000 are in the pipeline to be resettled.

While the Department of Health and Human Services has scrambled to provide shelter to minors at the border, its role in assisting refugees overseas is limited mostly to providing financial support to families after they arrive in the United States. The Departments of State and Homeland Security play a more significant role in vetting refugees overseas.

Under Mr. Trump, who instituted bans on refugees and expanded vetting for those fleeing persecution, many had all but given up hope of reuniting with relatives in the United States.

The Biden administration intended to send a message after four years of immigration policies that walled off America to the most vulnerable.

In a quarterly meeting on Feb. 26 between the State Department and the resettlement agencies, Biden administration officials said an updated budget for refugees would be released as soon as the president signed the final declaration, according to people familiar with the matter. But Mr. Biden had yet to do that, and flights for refugees, officials warned, would soon be canceled.

As the weeks stretched into months, it became clear that Mr. Biden’s presidency would not be the panacea some had thought.

“To just give a refugee a ticket after they wait in a line and follow the rules and go through this intrusive process and then snatch that ticket from their hand because the president didn’t sign a piece of paper?” Mr. Hetfield said. “That’s unacceptable.”

Inside the White House, the president had made his views clear, according to several people familiar with his objections to the idea of capping refugee admissions at 62,500. With crossings at the border rising, he did not intend to sign off on that number.

Ned Price, a spokesman for Mr. Blinken, said that “it should come as no surprise that Secretary Blinken has had opportunities to discuss repairing and strengthening” the refugee program with Mr. Biden. Officials familiar with the discussion said the two men, who are personally close, did not fight over the issue, but the president left no doubt where he stood.

Publicly, Ms. Psaki was delivering a very different message.

On April 1, she denied that the delay in signing the presidential determination was related to resources that were already being spent at the southwestern border.

“No, no, it’s not related to that,” she said. “No.”

And on April 8, Ms. Psaki was asked whether there was “some complication to raising the refugee cap.” She denied that there was.

“No,” she said. “We remain committed to it.”

Members of Congress were concerned, too. Until Mr. Trump’s assault on the refugee program, presidents of both parties had always signed the presidential determination within hours of delivering it to lawmakers, as the refugee statute requires.

But under Mr. Biden, the wait seemed endless.

Last Friday, that wait was finally over. But it was not what anyone outside the White House expected: Mr. Trump’s cap would remain in place.

“The admission of up to 15,000 refugees remains justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest,” Mr. Biden wrote in a presidential memo to the State Department. Once Mr. Trump’s cap was filled, the memo said, the ceiling could be raised again “as appropriate.”

Instead of making good on his promise to significantly expand refugee entry into the United States, Mr. Biden was sticking to the cap engineered by Stephen Miller, the architect of Mr. Trump’s immigration policies.

“This reflects Team Biden’s awareness that the border flood will cause record midterm losses,” Mr. Miller tweeted, adding that if it were still up to him, “Refugee cap should be reduced to ZERO.”

The idea that Mr. Miller and Mr. Biden were in agreement about anything was anathema to most of the president’s supporters, many of whom flew into a rage.

“This cruel policy is no more acceptable now than it was during the Trump administration,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut.

Within a few hours, officials in the White House knew they had a problem on their hands. In a statement at 4:36 p.m., Ms. Psaki asserted that the president’s decision on refugees “has been the subject of some confusion.”

While Ms. Psaki has insisted that Mr. Biden would most likely increase the number of allowed refugees again by May 15, a senior White House official cast doubt on the timeline. “I don’t think we’re going to hit 15,000 imminently or anything like that,” the official said. “I don’t think anyone can know exactly what the pace is going to be.”

By Friday evening, the White House was in full damage-control mode.

Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser, held an emergency conference call with refugee advocates at 7:30 p.m., emphasizing that the administration would work to welcome in the refugees with haste.

“I just hope the energy the Biden administration had during their first three weeks in office demonstrating leadership in the global refugee crisis gets back on track,” Mr. Hetfield said. “They lost so much momentum.”

Maggie Haberman contributed reporting from New York.