Posted on: April 16, 2021 Posted by: Mitchell Plitnick Comments: 0

[Update: After a fierce outcry, the White House issued a statement saying it would raise the number of refugees it expects to allow to enter the United States in 2021 form the pathetically low number of 15,000. The administration did not say what the new number would be, but that they would make increase the number next month.]

Candidate Joe Biden promised to raise the number of refugees the United States admitted in 2021 form the appallingly low levels under Donald Trump.

Unfortunately, President Joe Biden has turned Candidate Joe into a liar.

The Biden administration turned its back on refugees today, with the President signing an order that kept the annual cap on refugees at 15,000. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted, “America needs to rebuild our refugee resettlement program. We will use all 15,000 slots under the new Determination and work with Congress on increasing admissions and building back to the numbers to which we’ve committed.”

In other words, we’re not raising the limit on refugee admissions, but we’re sure gonna make it sound like we care.

This was followed not long after by Press Secretary Jen Psaki doing her very best impression of (insert your pick of Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, or Kayleigh McEnany here), tweeting, “This is just the beginning. This step lifts the restrictions put in place by prior Administration on where refugees can come from. We need to rebuild resettlement program and we are committed to continuing to increase refugee numbers.”

This is just ugly and contemptible spin. Hundreds of thousands of refugees all around the world, many of whom were made so at least in part by American policies and actions, are waiting, hoping, and far too often dying. And the United States, which has the means to do far more than any other country in the world, is shirking its responsibilities at a level we never have before.

Consider this table:

U.S. Annual Refugee Resettlement Ceiling and Annual Number of Admitted Refugees,
Fiscal Years 1980 through 2020
Year Annual Ceiling Number of Admitted Refugees
1980 231,700 207,116
1981 217,000 159,252
1982 140,000 98,096
1983 90,000 61,218
1984 72,000 70,393
1985 70,000 67,704
1986 67,000 62,146
1987 70,000 64,528
1988 87,500 76,483
1989 116,500 107,070
1990 125,000 122,066
1991 131,000 113,389
1992 131,000 132,531
1993 142,000 119,448
1994 121,000 112,981
1995 112,000 99,974
1996 90,000 76,403
1997 78,000 70,488
1998 83,000 77,080
1999 91,000 85,525
2000 90,000 73,147
2001 80,000 69,886
2002 70,000 27,131
2003 70,000 28,403
2004 70,000 52,873
2005 70,000 53,813
2006 70,000 41,223
2007 70,000 48,282
2008 80,000 60,191
2009 80,000 74,654
2010 80,000 73,311
2011 80,000 56,424
2012 76,000 58,238
2013 70,000 69,926
2014 70,000 69,987
2015 70,000 69,933
2016 85,000 84,995
2017 50,000 53,716
2018 45,000 22,517
2019 30,000 30,000
2020 18,000 11,841
Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis of WRAPS data from the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. Available at

That’s an appalling decline. It’s far too easy to blame it on Donald Trump. As you can see from the table, while Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Trump caused the sharpest dips, George H.W. Bush presided over a significant rise in refugee admissions. Bill Clinton reversed that trend. Barack Obama presided over a small and gradual decline in the number of refugee admissions until a slight bump in his last year in office.

Republicans may have done the most damage, but Democrats have nothing to be proud of on this score either.

But Biden inherited an incredibly low cap number of only 15,000 refugees to be admitted in 2021. Given the magnitude of the crisis at our border alone, that kind of disregard for human life is a crime of genocidal proportions.

Before Trump, the annual refugee cap was never lower than 67,000. That it fell below that every year is just one more piece of shame on the long list of Trump’s murderous acts.

Those of us who, like me, had to hold their nose and vote for Joe Biden last November should still expect better of him. Certainly those who enthusiastically supported Biden should, and I suspect most do.

There are many issues involving our foreign policy or where our domestic and foreign policies intersect where Biden is falling short. His ambitious domestic may have surprised us, but this should not, must not, give him leave to act in a way that will cause such enormous hardship on so many people.

As I pointed out on social media, “This is just mind boggling. It’s a cruel, and frankly, evil decision to break a campaign promise. It’s also very difficult to see where this is, even in the most cynical tally, to Biden’s advantage, politically or practically.”

Other than appeasing Republicans and other xenophobes–who, it must be stated, are going to oppose Biden with everything they have no matter what–it’s hard to see a motive for this decision. Perhaps Biden feels our capacity for admitting refugees has been so destroyed by Trump that we must wait until next year, as the saying goes.

That is the best light I can paint this in and it is still absolutely unacceptable. We are capable of ramping up such capacities if we want to do so. As climate crises and rising authoritarianism, rising inequality of wealth, and all the attendant crises of capitalism worsen, there will only be more refugees in the future.

We can do a lot better than this. It is as pressing a need as any we face if we care one whit about humanity. Biden has failed the first test miserably. It falls to us to force him to do better.