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Senate Democrats urge Biden to raise refugee cap, reject Trump's 'cruel legacy'

Dozens of Senate Democrats sign on to letter asking Biden administration to drastically increase US refugee intake, abolish 'anti-refugee policies'
Democrats in both houses of US Congress have called on the Biden administration to increase the US's refugee acceptance rate (AFP/File photo)

Democratic Senators have stepped up pressure on the Biden administration's stalled refugee admissions programme and urged the president to lift the cap on refugee intakes to 62,500 for the current fiscal year and twice that for the next.

Thirty-four Senate Democrats on Wednesday sent a letter, led by Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, to President Joe Biden, making the request following weeks of back-and-forth from the administration. 

Currently, the Biden administration has extended former President Donald Trump's 15,000 person cap on US refugee acceptance for this fiscal year (FY2021) in a controversial move the White House has said it is re-thinking. 

'There were more than 80 million people displaced worldwide in 2020, a record high'

- Letter from Senate Democrats

"The United States must reject the previous Administration’s cruel legacy of anti-refugee policies and return to our longstanding bipartisan tradition of providing safety to the world’s most vulnerable refugees," the senators wrote in Wednesday's letter. 

"According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were more than 80 million people displaced worldwide in 2020, a record high. Among this displaced population are 26 million refugees – the highest number in history – half of whom are children," the lawmakers warned.

Initially promising to meet the 62,500 and 125,000 yearly benchmarks, the administration announced earlier this month that it would maintain the Trump-era cap for the current fiscal year, which ends on 1 October. 

Sparking fierce backlash from within the Democratic party, hours later White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the president remained committed to increasing the cap, but said the initial 62,500 figure could not be reached within the six months remaining in FY2021.

"Given the decimated refugee admissions programme we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely," Psaki said.

"If the cap is close to that or at that, it will continue to be challenging, but there are considerations including the message we are sending to the world and also the need to get the muscles working in the system in the federal government, but also with the important partners out there in the United States and around the world that play an important role in refugees travelling to the United States," she told reporters.

'Draconian and discriminatory refugee policy'

At the time, Senator Durbin, a close ally to the president, criticised the administration's stalling.

"Refugees wait years for their chance and go through extensive vetting - 35,000 are ready today. I urge the Biden Administration to reconsider this decision and stick to their promise of increasing refugee admissions," Durbin said in a tweet.

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the administration was mulling over ways in which it could raise the cap to 62,500 despite having accepted only 2,050 at this point, midway through the year. 

The White House has said that the final decision on the refugee cap will be announced by 15 May. 

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Biden pledged as a presidential candidate to increase the cap to 125,000, adding that he was committed to raising that number over time. The administration then proposed in February raising the ceiling to 62,500 for the 2021 fiscal year.

Earlier this month, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) released a report showing that the US was on track to accept the smallest number of refugees ever recorded within any given year. 

Slamming the administration for marking a "new historical low", the group called on the administration to meet its campaign promises. 

Around the same time, 30 House Democrats also penned a letter to the president, highlighting the lawmakers' concerns. 

"Having fought for four years against the Trump Administration's full-scale assault on refugee resettlement in the United States, we were relieved to see you commit to increasing our refugee resettlement numbers so early in your Administration," the letter read. 

"But... our refugee policy remains unacceptably draconian and discriminatory," the lawmakers continued. 

The IRC report released earlier this month estimated that if the Biden White House continues its trajectory, the US would admit 4,510 refugees during FY2021, which represents less than half the number from the last year of the Trump administration.