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Delay in refugee order frustrates Biden allies, separated families

Joseph Sankisha lived in a refugee camp for nearly a decade after fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that he said had killed several family members, including his parents. While he’s grateful to have been resettled in the U.S., Sankisha has not seen his family in over four years.

Sankisha’s wife and five-year-old daughter, who remain at the Osire refugee camp in Namibia, are unlikely to be resettled in the U.S. as long Trump-era restrictions on refugee admissions continue to remain in place.

“America told us we could be in peace here and that we were going to get some rest. But to live without the family is really complicated, really hard,” Sankisha said in an interview.

Despite promises to rebuild the decimated U.S. refugee program, President Biden has yet to sign the presidential order needed to increase the historically low admissions cap instituted by President Trump and scrap limits that have disproportionally affected African, Middle Eastern and Muslim refugees, as well as unaccompanied children fleeing violence.

The unexpected, unexplained delay has led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights for refugees ready to build a new life in the U.S. and kept tens of thousands of displaced people in the U.S. resettlement pipeline in limbo. It has also frustrated and angered some of Mr. Biden’s most ardent allies, including refugee advocates and Democratic lawmakers.

“It’s a promise made and a promise not kept. And it’s a promise not kept where the administration holds all the cards,” Barbara Strack, who led the refugee division at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services  (USCIS) from 2005 to 2018, told CBS News. “It literally takes the president signing a document.”

Mr. Biden came into office pledging to dismantle his predecessor’s refugee policy. Mr. Trump enacted consecutive record-low refugee ceilings; depicted refugees as economic and security risks; allowed states to veto their resettlement; and severely narrowed who was eligible for U.S. refuge. 

Last fall, Mr. Trump instituted a 15,000-person refugee cap, the lowest in the history of the modern refugee program. He also got rid of regional allocations of refugee spots, outlining categories for specific groups, like people fleeing religious persecution.

Soon after taking office, Mr. Biden reiterated his campaign pledge to raise the refugee cap to 125,000 for fiscal year 2022. He also pledged to make a “down payment” on that promise, which the State Department followed through on in early February by proposing to revise the ceiling for the current fiscal year to 62,500 spots and end Mr. Trump’s restrictive resettlement categories.

Seventy days have passed since the State Department submitted its proposal to Congress, and Mr. Biden has yet to ratify it by signing an annual document known as the presidential determination.

“At this point, alarm has been supplanted by disappointment and maybe some questioning: what is the cause of the delay? Does the administration understand the human cost of the delay, the human cost of continuing Trump’s policies?” Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, told CBS News.

Since the current fiscal year started this October, less than 2,200 refugees have been admitted into the U.S., according to State Department data provided to CBS News. Refugee advocates fear U.S. could resettle a historic low number of refugees this fiscal year, lower than the 11,800 admitted under Mr. Trump in fiscal year 2020.

“The proposed revised admissions goal for this fiscal year of 62,500 was still going to be an ambitious figure,” Meredith Owen, director of policy and advocacy at Church World Service, one of nine national resettlement agencies, told CBS News. “But by delaying signing the revised admissions goal this long, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The security or medical checks of more than 2,000 once travel-ready refugees have expired in the past few weeks because they don’t meet Mr. Trump’s narrow admissions categories, according to government figures distributed to resettlement agencies.  

Overall, there are currently fewer than 700 refugees who are travel ready; more than 35,000 whose cases have been approved by USCIS and 75,000 who have been pre-screened by the U.S., according to the figures.

The State Department referred questions about the presidential determination to the White House, saying it could not comment on internal deliberations. 

A White House spokesman said the determination is being considered and noted the administration is focused on exploring ways to improve refugee vetting and screening; enhancing the process to interview applicants during the pandemic; and expanding resettlement options for displaced people in Central America. 

Asked about the delay on Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there could be some “news” on the presidential determination later in the day.

“President Biden remains committed to rebuilding the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. A new Presidential Determination is under active consideration,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “In the meantime, the work to rejuvenate the program to support increased refugee admissions is well underway.”

While the White House has declined to offer an explanation for the delay, congressional officials and refugee advocates suspect the Biden administration is hesitant to make an announcement amid the sharp increase in apprehensions of migrants, including historic numbers of unaccompanied children, at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“There is some notion that what is happening at the southwest border is sort of taking up all of the immigration bandwidth right now, that the public doesn’t understand the difference between refugees and asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants and that its just kind of a fight not worth having at this moment,” said Strack, the former USCIS refugee division chief.

Strack said the conflation of the two issues would be problematic. 

“Operationally, programmatically and policy wise, you can do both,” she added. “The United States’ response to humanitarian crises can both deal with asylum seekers at the border and having an orderly and rigorous refugee program overseas.”

Varghese, of the International Refugee Assistance, said the continuation of Mr. Trump’s refugee restrictions are particularly concerning, given the different conflicts around the world prompting people to flee their homelands. He cited the armed conflict in the Ethiopian region of Tigray; the announced U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan; and the recent coup in Myanmar staged by the country’s military generals.

“There are these emerging, unforeseen refugee crises that we can’t address through the refugee program because President Biden is still carrying out President Trump’s xenophobic, restrictionist refugee policy,” Varghese said.

Meanwhile, Sankisha, the Congolese refugee resettled in the U.S., said his daughter constantly asks him when their family will be together again. He said she asks him whether he will return to Africa or if they will join him in North Carolina, where he works as a truck driver.

“Please help us to see our family again,” Sankisha pleaded. “We are already thankful for everything the United States of America has done for us. But to have peace of mind, we need to be together with our family members.” 

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