After nearly four months in office, the Biden administration faced harsh backlash from human rights activists for maintaining the Trump administration’s all-time low of 15,000 refugee admissions. On May 3rd, Biden reached into his predecessor’s playbook, pulled a reversal, and stated his administration would now allow up to 62,500 refugees, while at the same time admitting they would not be able to meet those numbers1. That’s the political equivalent of wrestling your dog for his chew-toy, then smacking the dog when he snaps at you, claiming it was self defense.
Although theTrump administration set an all-time low of 15,000 refugees, historically the numbers float between 70k to 90k according to the Migration Policy Institute,2 regardless of which party is elected to the White House.
Still, the United States only hit the ceiling for refugees allowed about one-quarter of the time across the previous 4 decades. This increase is more likely out of a desire to create some distance between the current administration and the former one as a result of the criticism, than due to any real, intrinsic humanitarian concern.
In the not-to-distant past, Biden’s campaign platform promised to raise the refugee ceiling to 125,000, and this increase is only fifty-percent of that goal. Let’s be honest with ourselves; if any candidate fulfilled even 50% of what they promised in their campaign leading up to the presidency? That candidate would have the most successful presidency anyone alive today has ever witnessed. So instead, lets frame this increase by its historical precedent.
The last time any president permitted a ceiling over 120,000 was in 1993—during Bill Clinton’s first presidential cycle—but this itself was a continuation of the George H.W. Bush era policy. Before that, the only time the limit was higher was under the final years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, before Ronald Reagan was elected.
So Biden’s ideal numbers of 124,500 might be almost 10x what Trump had allowed, but it is not abnormally large for any president in the last 40 years. It just barely hits the upper end of the “middle majority,” a comfortable 90-120k, granted refugee status in the US.
Framing Biden’s numbers in this light, it’s clear he has no intention of allowing a historically greater amount of refugees. He merely tried to sway public image around his mirage of tolerance for immigrants, hoping that the masses were ignorant of the historical precedent his party had established.
While it is a substantial increase over the Trump-era refugee ceiling, it is an empty promise that forgets the reason that the refugees come here seeking safety, for the cry of Lady Liberty who once proclaimed
…Give me your tired, your poor
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”3
now instead seems to proclaim
Send me your best, your brightest
The few but ideal yearning to bind to our yoke
Who cannot fair better elsewhere in the slightest
Those who have been driven from their homelands in search of refuge will be met by the desert that is our complex immigration policy, their parched throats gasping for water but finding no relief. Refugees, after all, are fleeing from terrible situations, not merely seeking “the land of opportunity” on a whimsy.
Instead of the “beacon-hand” of Lady Liberty, these masses will be met by the “conquering limbs astride from land-to-land” that Emma Lazarus decried almost a quarter of a millennium ago.
The question we all must ask ourselves when it comes to dealing with people (refugees, strangers, neighbors, whomever), is “What would you do to provide a better life for yourself and your loved ones?” Apparently, go elsewhere. After all, there’d be no room for you here.
- Sean Sullivan, Washington Post, May 3, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-refugee/2021/05/03/1b833126-ac4d-11eb-ab4c-986555a1c511_story.html
- Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis of WRAPS data from the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. Available at www.wrapsnet.org/admissions-and-arrivals/.
- Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” in National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/colossus.htm, May 5, 2021