U.S. President Joe Biden said Monday he has resurrected a plan to raise refugee admissions this year to 62,500 after drawing criticism from supporters for initially keeping the refugee cap at a historically low level.
Biden formally reversed himself just two weeks after his administration announced it would keep the cap at the 15,000 level set by his predecessor, Donald Trump.
In a statement, Biden said his action "erases the historically low number set by the previous administration of 15,000, which did not reflect America's values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees."
"It is important to take this action today to remove any lingering doubt in the minds of refugees around the world who have suffered so much, and who are anxiously waiting for their new lives to begin," he said.
Soon after taking office in January, Biden pledged to ramp up the program but then surprised allies when he opted to stick with the lower cap out of concern over bad optics, given the rising number of migrants crossing the U.S. southern border with Mexico, U.S. officials have said.
Biden's flip-flopping drew the ire of refugee advocates and some Democratic lawmakers.
Trump steadily slashed the size of the refugee program during his term in office, and Biden officials say the cuts have made quickly raising admissions more difficult.
But the refugee program is distinct from the asylum system for migrants. Refugees come from all over the world, many fleeing conflict. They undergo extensive vetting while still overseas to be cleared for entry to the United States, unlike migrants who arrive at a U.S. border and then request asylum.
Working to 'undo the damage of the last 4 years'
Biden said it was doubtful the U.S. would be able to welcome a total of 62,500 refugees by the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30 or reach a goal of 125,000 admissions next year.
"The sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year," he said. "We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years. It will take some time, but that work is already under way."
A White House official said Biden now wanted to raise the cap regardless of capacity limitations to "send a very clear message that refugee processing is a critical part of America's place in the world," acknowledging the initial lower announcement "did not send the right message."
Delays in Biden's decision making on the issue led to hundreds of cancelled flights for refugees already cleared to travel to the United States, often after years of waiting, refugee groups said.
4 families separated at Mexico border to be reunited
Earlier, the Biden administration said four families that were separated at the Mexico border during Trump's presidency will be reunited in the United States this week in what Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas calls "just the beginning" of a broader effort.
Two of the four families include mothers who were separated from their children in late 2017, one Honduran and another Mexican, Mayorkas said, declining to detail their identities. He described them as children who were three years old at the time and "teenagers who have had to live without their parent during their most formative years."
Parents will return to the United States on humanitarian parole while authorities consider other longer-term forms of legal status, said Michelle Brane, executive director of the administration's Family Reunification Task Force. The children are already in the U.S.
Exactly how many families will reunite in the United States and in what order is linked to negotiations with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to settle a federal lawsuit in San Diego, Calif., but Mayorkas said there were more to come.
"We continue to work tirelessly to reunite many more children with their parents in the weeks and months ahead," Mayorkas told reporters. "We have a lot of work still to do, but I am proud of the progress we have made and the reunifications that we have helped to achieve."
More than 5,500 children were separated from their parents during the Trump administration going back to July 1, 2017, many of them under a "zero-tolerance" policy to criminally prosecute any adult who entered the country illegally, according to court filings.
The Biden administration is doing its own count going back to Trump's inauguration in January 2017 and, according to Brane, believes more than 1,000 families remain separated.
While family separation under "zero-tolerance" ended in June 2018 under court order and shortly after Trump reversed course, Biden has repeatedly assailed the practice as an act of cruelty. An executive order on his first day in office pledged to reunite families that were still separated "to the greatest extent possible."
With files from The Associated Press
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