Avoiding an escalation of conservative attacks against President Joe Biden’s immigration policies was one of the factors the White House considered when it initially decided to keep his predecessor’s controversial cap on refugees.
Though the issues are separate, administration officials predicted raising the number of refugees, as Biden had promised to in February, would turbocharge the false claim on the right that the administration was “opening” its U.S. borders. They feared the ramifications, as they would come at a time when the White House is also asking Republicans to negotiate on a massive infrastructure package.
“You’re not going to throw gasoline on top of that fire,” said a person briefed on internal discussions, who described it as one of the factors considered. “Fox News would have had a field day with it. It’s the easiest talking point for every Sunday show.”
But if the White House was hoping to avoid a political fire with conservatives when it announced that Biden would keep former President Donald Trump’s 15,000-person cap — an historic low — it ended up sparking one with Democrats in Congress, immigrant advocates and refugee resettlement agencies. Later Friday, the administration reversed itself after the flood of condemnations, saying it would indeed raise the number for refugee admissions by or before May 15.
The flip-flop was just the latest example of an otherwise buttoned down administration struggling to find its political footing in the immigration arena. Though it has shown message discipline on Covid-19, vaccinations and the economy, the issues around immigration have repeatedly dogged the Biden world since the president took office. Hiring in key agencies dealing with immigration policy and enforcement lagged in the administration, with new officials having to quickly ramp up even as new challenges emerged. The refugee program was already beset with difficulties left behind from a Trump White House that gutted it.
The Biden administration has argued that both the situation at the border and the refugee admissions cap are intertwined because of the federal resources that they drain. But allies have not found the argument persuasive.
In an effort to contain the fallout, the White House held a Friday call with refugee and immigrant advocates after it reversed course on its refugee cap announcement. But attendees were unable to get their questions answered about who played a role in the decision and why the May 15 deadline to increase the number of admissions was only mentioned hours later. The White House asked for questions beforehand and selected five, according to a source on the call.
Multiple advocates on the call said they left it unsatisfied with the White House’s explanation for its decision and subsequent walk back.
“They made the calculation that in political terms this would be something that could be used against them,” said Galen Carey, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals. “The waffling is probably going to be used against them more than if they’d just stuck with doing the right thing.”
Carey, who was on Friday’s late night call with White House officials said he was pleased the administration walked back its initial decision to keep the cap refugee admissions at 15,000 but said “the explanation and the trying to cover their tracks, it’s not very convincing.”
A White House aide on Tuesday said the administration wanted to make sure it wasn’t rushing the issue and instead was allowing enough time to properly review a refugee system that they say Trump left more hollowed out than they initially anticipated.
“This was always meant to be just the beginning,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. But the White House did not say until its afternoon clarification that Biden would issue a cap increase by May 15.
On Tuesday, Psaki pointed to the transfer of millions in funding by the Health and Human Services Department to address capacity for safe housing for children at the border as part of the reason for the administration’s decision on refugee admissions.
Several allies privately say they see the missteps with immigration as evidence that the White House was not prepared to tackle the issue in its first 100 days, instead focusing on a deadly pandemic and efforts to reboot the economy. That included the president who, while talking to reporters after golfing, used the word “crisis” to characterize the border, something the White House later walked back.
Republicans have hammered Biden on issues at the border with conservative channels like Fox News regularly teeing off on the administration. In a Monday interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity, Trump described the border as “a horrible situation,” that “could destroy our country.”
Still, the Biden administration is getting more than its share of pressure to do more from immigrant and refugee rights groups.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services, pushed back on White House messaging conflating asylum seekers at the border and the refugee resettlement program.
“They are different and distinct — one is largely run by Health and Human services. The other is largely run by the State department,” she said.
“There is no logistical or administrative reason we can’t protect both of these vulnerable populations,” added Vignarajah, who will join others advocates Wednesday for a meeting with White House officials on refugee resettlement. “I believe if we want to make good on President Biden’s promise to restore the soul of our nation, we must protect both.”