SAN DIEGO – The families of refugees and their supporters, including 124 elected officials, sent President Joe Biden a letter Tuesday urging him to make good on his promise to boost refugee admissions to the United States during the current budget year, replacing the record low number set by his predecessor.
Biden presented a plan to Congress two months ago to raise the ceiling on admissions to 62,500 and to eliminate restrictions imposed by former President Donald Trump that have disqualified a significant number of refugees, including those fleeing war.
But Biden has not issued a presidential determination since his administration notified Congress, as required by law. The action does not require congressional approval and past presidents have issued such presidential determinations that set the cap on refugee admissions shortly after the notification to Congress.
The Biden administration has given no explanation as to why the president has kept the refugee admissions cap of 15,000 set by Trump, the lowest it has been in the 41-year-old U.S. Refugee Resettlement program's history. The White House had no immediate response to the letter Tuesday.
“This continues to have a devastating impact on people in dire need of humanitarian protection,” states the letter signed by the families of refugees, resettlement agencies and 124 state and local elected officials from 35 states.
Only about 2,050 refugees have been allowed in to the United States because of the restrictions set by Trump, agencies said.
Every day that passes without any action “leaves hundreds of refugee families in limbo in refugee camps and many waiting to be reunited with their loved ones here in the U.S. waiting for us to uphold our promise to protect,” the letter states.
“We hope that President Biden will listen to our voices,” said Nejra Sumic, one of the refugee organizers of the letter.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the president is committed to “ensuring that the United States is, again, a leader when it comes to refugees," but it will take time to restore the program that was decimated by the previous administration. The drop in admissions under Trump forced many resettlement offices to close and let staff go.
“There’s a great deal of rebuilding that needs to take place in order to have a refugee program that allows us to achieve what we wanted to achieve in a way that is both effective and that is safe," Price said without elaborating.
The State Department, which coordinates flights with resettlement agencies, booked 715 refugees to come to the United States with the anticipation that Biden would have acted by March, but those flights were canceled since the refugees were not eligible under Trump's rules, according to resettlement agencies.
Most of the refugees are from Africa and fleeing armed conflict or political persecution. Most spots are allocated for people fleeing religious persecution, Iraqis who have assisted U.S. forces there, and people from Central America’s Northern Triangle, the resettlement agencies say.
Among those who had their tickets canceled was a pregnant woman from Congo who can no longer fly because she is now in her third trimester, said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, a Maryland-based Jewish nonprofit that is one of nine agencies that resettles refugees in the U.S.
“There is simply no rationale for not making this change at this time," he said, adding that it is creating “so much extra stress for refugees."
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.