JOE BIDEN campaigned on a promise to show compassion to immigrants. The month after he took office, the new president pledged to increase the annual limit on the number of refugees allowed to resettle in America to 62,500. So it came as a surprise when, in April, he said that he would allow in no more than 15,000 in the fiscal year ending in September, maintaining the woefully low cap introduced by his predecessor, Donald Trump. The reaction was swift. “Say it ain’t so, President Joe,” pleaded Dick Durbin, a senator from Illinois. On May 3rd, under pressure from Democrats and advocates, Mr Biden declared that he would revert to his original plan to raise this year’s limit to 62,500 (see chart).
Mr Biden’s wobble on refugees probably stems in part from a recent influx of illegal immigrants at America’s southern border. Although these migrants and asylum-seekers rarely fall into the same legal category as refugees—a term reserved for those fleeing persecution and war who are vetted before their arrival—the narrative that there is a “crisis” at the border has created a political headache for Mr Biden.
The administration’s new policy is a return to standard American practice. For decades, America resettled more refugees than the rest of the world put together. But under Mr Trump refugee admissions were slashed to record lows. Resettlements were set to increase to 110,000 in the year to September 2017; instead they fell to less than half that number. In fiscal 2018, for the first time, America took in fewer refugees than Canada.
Mr Biden will also restore the traditional criteria for qualification as a refugee. The Trump administration had given priority to people fleeing religious persecution and to Iraqis and Afghans who had worked for the American military, in effect disqualifying most applicants from Muslim and African countries (see chart). Admissions from war-ravaged spots such as Somalia and Syria duly fell. Just six came from Yemen in the past three years. Mr Biden will ditch those restrictions in favour of regional quotas, including 22,000 slots for refugees from Africa and 13,000 slots for those fleeing South Asia and the Middle East.
After years of relative inaction, processing and integrating these refugees may prove difficult. Some government agencies downsized during Mr Trump’s presidency. The Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security, budgeted for 253 staff to interview refugees abroad in the 2019 fiscal year, down from 352 in 2017. Charities scaled back their operations, too. Melanie Nezer of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a refugee-resettlement organisation, says that a third of the country’s local aid affiliates shut down or went dormant in the Trump years. Krish O’Mara Vignarajah of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, another such group, says resettling 62,500 refugees will take a “herculean” effort.
The new cap is aspirational; admissions often fail to meet it. By mid-April, 668 refugees were ready to travel to America and another 36,000 had been approved—well short of the cap. Mr Biden admitted as much in his announcement, calling it a “sad truth”. Still, it signals a renewed commitment to America’s ideals and puts Mr Biden on track to raise the cap to 125,000 next fiscal year, which he has promised to do. He has much work ahead. America let in just 2,050 refugees through March of this fiscal year.