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Biden was right on refugees; then he caved

  • Saturday, May 15, 2021 1:30am
  • Opinion

The annual refugee resettlement kerfuffle is underway.

As usual, on one side are the immigration expansionists: President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, congressional Democrats and predictable GOP defectors, immigration lawyers who see dollar signs in their futures, resettlement agencies who also profit disproportionately and the tirelessly active pro-immigration lobby.

On the other side are American voters, who want to see an admission cap that’s consistent with the nation’s ability to absorb refugees, the current economy and, in 2021, the possible consequences from a still-threatening COVID-19 that refugees might carry. Americans also want to maintain the country’s well-deserved image as a compassionate, caring nation.

For decades, refugee admissions have been a political hot potato. Until President Trump set the annual level at 15,000, the previous levels ranged widely. Under former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the U.S. resettled an average of 81,000 refugees annually. Then, Trump gradually cut back to his final 15,000 cap – from 45,000, to 30,000, and to 18,000 during successive fiscal years.

Although Trump set his 2020 cap at 15,000, the administration admitted only 12,000, a cautionary response to the coronavirus. The caps represent an upper limit on how many refugee applications the State Department is willing to review during a fiscal year and not a mandated goal.

Since Biden entered the White House, the refugee debate has taken on another antagonistic dimension: Biden’s waffling.

Biden, a co-sponsor with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy of the Refugee Act of 1979, initially committed to extending Trump’s 15,000 cap, a decision he said was “justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest.” But after getting intense blowback from influential Democrats like Illinois’ Dick Durbin, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, immigration lawyers and resettlement profiteers, Biden reversed his course, and signed an Executive Order that committed to a 125,000 refugee ceiling in 2022.

Biden relented under pressure from Durbin who had sharply reprimanded Biden, calling a 15,000 ceiling “unacceptable.” Biden also came under attack from immigration lawyers who scorned his “cowardly” failure to fulfill his campaign promise to lift Trump’s annual cap from 15,000 to 125,000. One immigration lawyer questioned why Biden is “perpetuating Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant legacy.”

Most craven among Biden critics were nine taxpayer-funded refugee resettlement agencies: Church World Service, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, International Rescue Committee, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and World Relief Corporation.

The International Rescue Committee whole-heartedly endorsed Biden’s executive order. The agencies have a keen interest in maximizing resettlement. In 2012, a critical analysis from the General Accounting Office found that agencies’ annual federally funded budgets are determined by the number of refugees they resettle.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform published a report that quantified for taxpayers precisely how much refugee resettlement costs. FAIR’s study found that the cost of resettling refugees is about $1.8 billion per year, with about $867 million representing welfare payments. Other resettling costs include processing, education and housing assistance. That works out, FAIR research found, to a per refugee cost to taxpayers of nearly $75,600 during the refugee’s first five resettled years.

Biden’s backers insist that increasing refugee resettlement will preserve the U.S. position as the world’s most welcoming nation for migrants. But America’s status as the world’s most charitable – with or without admitting more refugees – cannot be challenged.

In 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees compiled data which showed that the U.S. was the top 2020 donor to UNHCR’s global refugee activities. The nearly $2 billion in U.S. contributions is about four times the total contributed by the source that ranked second, the entire European Union, which gave an aggregate $522 million.

Refugees qualify for immediate work permission. With millions of Americans unemployed, underemployed or COVID-19 furloughed, more employment-authorized refugees create unnecessary competition for increasingly scarce jobs that citizens and lawfully present residents deserve.

Biden’s original reaction – to hold steady at 15,000 refugees for the upcoming fiscal year – was correct. Unfortunately, Biden didn’t have the courage of his convictions, and folded under the pressure Democratic extremists put on him.

Joe Guzzardi is a Progressives for Immigration Reform analyst who has written about immigration for more than 30 years. Contact him at jguzzardi@pfirdc.org.

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