Liberals are feeling empowered after the White House backtracked on plans to keep the cap on refugees at the same level of the Trump administration following a swell of public pressure from the left.
Progressives and advocates for refugees say that the White House’s quick course correction demonstrates their growing power in Washington over the Biden agenda.
“We take this victory, now let’s protect this victory,” said Ezra Levin, co-executive director of progressive group Indivisible. “Now let’s hold these elected officials accountable.”
The White House initially announced Friday the cap on refugees would be kept at the record-low level set by the Trump administration, or 15,000. After an explosive blowback from Democrats, including Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who described the figure as shameful, White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement saying that Biden would release a new, increased cap within the month.
Days later, there are lingering concerns among some liberal Democrats who said they were shocked at the initial decision to keep Trump’s cap in place.
“There was no warning. I had been in pretty close touch about it with the White House. I was completely surprised,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Jayapal, who previously worked at a refugee camp on the border of Laos and Cambodia, said the progressives have thus far had “great experiences” working with the administration on a host of issues.
“On this one, what makes me really worried is that this is probably the most bipartisan piece of immigration legislation you can imagine,” she said. “If we are going to balk at doing this, what does that mean for the rest of immigration?”
Other progressives, while voicing the same initial outrage, said they’ve been heartened by the administration’s near immediate decision to revisit the issue, with intentions of raising the cap.
“Because of the quick reversal, it still shows that the administration is receptive. It’s not easy to reverse a position like that. And the fact that they did so — and that they did so the same day — it shows that they are responsive,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
“But it also shows that the advocacy and organizing cannot take a break during the Biden administration,” she quickly added.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a former chairman of the Progressive Caucus, said liberals were given what in retrospect constituted an explanation for keeping the current cap in place when they met with chief of staff Ron Klain at the White House earlier in the month. Still, he opposed the move not to raise the ceiling and said he’s heartened by the administration’s responsiveness to the liberal outcry.
“The fact that he listened to us so quick, I’m not used to that,” Pocan said.
The White House has struggled to explain the shift, sidestepping questions this week about whether it resulted from Democratic pressure. Psaki on Monday even suggested that the walk back did notrepresent a change in policy, saying that Biden’s intention was always to raise the number.
And while the White House has been clear in the days since that it plans to raise the cap expediently, officials have not telegraphed a specific number for the increase beyond indicating it won’t be 62,500 — the figure the State Department proposed to Congress in February.
“We are actually going to set a large cap soon and I expect it’s going to be before May 15,” Psaki said Tuesday.
Democratic lawmakers and other advocates have plans to continue pressuring Biden to follow through on his commitment to admit a larger number of refugees.
Ann Hollingsworth, director of government relations and senior policy adviser at Refugees International, said that she welcomes the White House’s clarification but argued that the steps the White House took on Friday should have come months ago at the beginning of the administration.
“We continue to push for the commitment that was made in February,” Hollingsworth said. “Agencies and voluntary organizations that assist in resettlement do have substantial capacity to resettle. They have been waiting for this moment.”
Still, liberals see the swift reversal as an initial win in what is likely to be a longer fight over the refugee cap.
“It can be difficult as grassroots advocates to know when you apply pressure, did it actually have an effect?” said Levin. “To the administration’s credit, they heard loud and clear.”
Progressives have racked up some wins, especially on the domestic policy front, under Biden, and recent surveys have shown the president with broad support among the Democratic Party.
Biden was able to unite his party behind his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package to get it passed without Republican support. His infrastructure proposal, while falling short of a loftier price tag demanded by some progressives, includes substantial investments in the fight against climate change sought by liberals.
The president also won accolades from progressives for his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in September, even as it was met with concerns from more hawkish members of the party.
That’s why the pushback on Friday to Biden’s decision was so striking — it was an early and rare example of the president receiving a public rebuke from members of his party, and particularly the progressive wing.
One Democratic strategist argued that the issue would not continue to significantly divide Democrats even if they are unsatisfied with Biden’s overall response, however, noting that party officials understand that Biden’s policies are preferable even when flawed when compared to what a Republican president would enact.
“If Democrats have learned anything over the past four years, they have to stick together,” the strategist said. “I think Democrats across the country have learned to be able to manage policy they don’t like versus policy positions they may never get under different leadership.”