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As Biden looks to raise refugee cap, Catholics argue he can do more
President-elect Joe Biden addresses a virtual 40th anniversary celebration of Jesuit Refugee Services on Nov. 12, 2020. / Jesuit Refugee Services/Vimeo

Washington D.C., Sep 21, 2021 / 13:01 pm (CNA).

Catholic refugee advocates on Tuesday praised President Joe Biden for pushing to raise the refugee cap in the coming fiscal year, and urged even more refugee admissions.

On Monday, President Biden recommended that the United States double its limit on refugee resettlement in the coming fiscal year, to 125,000 refugees from 62,500. The U.S. bishops’ conference has also pushed for an increase in the refugee cap to 125,000.

“The number announced today is a step in the right direction and signals the President’s commitment to return to our nation’s moral leadership and track record of welcoming refugees,” said Joan Rosenhauer, executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA in a statement on Tuesday.

“However, we would have hoped that this number was higher,” Rosenhauer said, pointing to the recent refugee crisis in Afghanistan and arguing for a total cap of 200,000. Saying the United States “has a moral and legal duty” to help refugees, she noted that “[t]he Afghan refugee crisis only made the need to increase this number more pressing.”

Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission and mobilization at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), told CNA on Tuesday that he welcomed Biden’s announcement.

“It is very good to see the United States increase its welcoming of these very vulnerable people fleeing conflict, and CRS sees in so many parts of the world – Afghanistan is top of mind – how innocent people get caught in situations of violence, and need to flee for safety,” O’Keefe said.

“The Church calls us to welcome the stranger, and this year, more than in recent years I can remember, we need to do that.”

Each year, the President makes a report to Congress recommending a limit on the number of refugees the United States will accept in the coming fiscal year.

While outgoing President Obama had set the refugee cap at 110,000 for the 2017 fiscal year, President Donald Trump several months later lowered it to 50,000 for that year; the United States still resettled more than 53,000 refugees during that fiscal year. Trump progressively lowered the refugee cap during his presidency, setting it at just 15,000 refugees for the 2021 fiscal year.

Biden in May acted to raise the refugee admissions cap for the 2021 fiscal year to 62,500. However, he admitted that the goal of 62,500 admissions would not be achievable by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

The United States has only resettled a fraction of that number, as of Aug. 31; only 7,637 refugees had been admitted at that point in the 2021 fiscal year, according to U.S. State Department data.

“We’re in a moment of history when displaced people need our help more than ever. More than 80 million people have been forced to flee their homes, the highest levels in recent history,” Rosenhauer said on Monday. “Far less than 1% have successfully resettled in the United States so far this fiscal year.”

“Raising the number to 200,000 would have allowed for the accommodation of a significantly higher total number of refugees from Afghanistan and around the world,” she said.

As the last U.S. military forces left Afghanistan in August, thousands of Afghan civilians were still reportedly seeking to evacuate as the Taliban took control of the country.  

The Biden administration says it will prioritize resettlement of certain classes of refugees, including those from Central America, those identifying as LGBTQI+, “at-risk Uyghurs,” Hong Kong refugees, and Burmese dissidents and Rohingyas. In addition, the administration says it will expand access to the refugee admissions program “for Afghans at risk due to their affiliation with the United States.”

The chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) also praised Biden’s announcement on Tuesday.

USCIRF vice chair Nury Turkel called on the administration “to expand its P-2 designation granting access to the refugee program for certain Afghan nationals to include members of religious groups at extreme risk of persecution by the Taliban.”

In November 2020, Biden had promised to increase the refugee cap to 125,000 for the 2022 fiscal year, in remarks to the 40th anniversary celebration of Jesuit Refugee Services. However, several months into his administration, he had not taken executive action to do so for the 2021 fiscal year.

In April, the White House said that the refugee cap would remain at 15,000, before reversing that stance on the same day that it was widely reported. The executive director of the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB) migration committee had told CNA on April 14 that he was “absolutely” disappointed with refugee admissions, which had at that point “effectively been halted.”