Power Up: Biden's refugee reversal shows perils of immigration issue for him

Power Up: Biden’s refugee reversal shows perils of immigration issue for him

Originally Published in The Washington Post

Jacqueline Alemany - May 4, 2021

The policies

ABOUT FACE ON REFUGEES: President Biden reversed course and lifted the annual limit on the number of refugees who can be admitted to the U.S. to 62,500 after fierce backlash from Democrats over his previous decision to keep the Trump record-law cap in place.

Biden acknowledged that refugee admissions would not fill the new 62,500 slots, blaming former president Donald Trump for dismantling the refugee system:

  • “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 underway.”
  • Biden also vowed to hit his goal of raising the cap to 125,000 in the next fiscal year starting in October but also cautioned there are challenges ahead: “That goal will still be hard to hit. We might not make it the first year. But we are going to use every tool available to help these fully-vetted refugees fleeing horrific conditions in their home countries.”

With problems growing at the southern border, Biden's about face came after last month announcing he would retain Trump's 15,000 refugee cap. Biden overruled some of his top foreign policy and national security aides to keep that number, despite his campaign promise to raise it.

  • As The Post's Sean Sullivan points out: “The inaction underlined the political and policy concerns about immigration that Biden and some of his top advisers have been feeling in the early days of his presidency. The border surge has prompted strong criticism from both Democratic and Republican elected officials, and polls show the public is also worried about his handling of the situation.”

By the numbers: Ffity-three percent of adults say they disapprove of the way Biden has handled the immigration situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week.

  • “While there are significant differences in his approval ratings on this issue among Democrats, Republicans and independents, the falloff from [Biden's] ratings on the pandemic are sizable among all three groups. For example, there is a 28-point drop among Democrats in rating Biden on the pandemic versus the border. Among Republicans, the falloff is 23 points, and among independents, 31 points,” our colleagues Dan Balz, Scott Clement and Emily Guskin noted. 
  • A CNN poll released last week also found Biden weak on immigration, with his approval rating dropping even among Democrats to 72 percent.
  • However, “most Americans, 64%, say they favor allowing refugees from central American countries to seek asylum in the United States, similar to the share who felt that way in 2019,”according to CNN's Jennifer Agiesta. “There has been little change in the partisan split on this question: 82% of Democrats and 68% of independents favor allowing them to seek asylum, but just 32% of Republicans agree.”

On the right: Republicans were quick to respond to the issue that's showed staying power as a political cudgel for the GOP going into 2022 midterms — and accused Biden of capitulating to his party's left flank:

  • “'Increasing the refugee admissions cap will put American jobs and safety at risk,' [Sen. Tom] Cotton [R-Ark.} tweeted, despite multiple studies showing that immigrants work jobs that employers historically struggle to fill. ‘The Biden administration should be focused on getting Americans back to work,’” the New York Times's Michael Shear and Zolan Kanno-Youngs noted. 
  • “They are very concerned about the border,” Sarah Chamberlain, the CEO of Republican Main Street Partnership, told Power Up last week of GOP suburban women whose support in part helped Biden defeat Trump. “These are the women that did not vote for Trump and are watching [Biden] closely.”

On the left: Democratic lawmakers and refugee advocates hailed Biden's decision but quickly noted the implications of his delay in raising the cap.

  • “Biden’s hesitancy had real-world consequences, refugee advocates said,” per Sean. “They noted in recent weeks that it meant canceled flights for refugees ready to travel. Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill urged Biden to fulfill his promise, but for a time, they were unsuccessful.”
  • “In a sign of the White House’s desire to repair frayed relations with refugee advocates, administration officials held a call with them after Monday’s announcement, on which they reinforced the themes Biden underscored in his statement, according to two people with knowledge of the conversation,” Sean reports.

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