WASHINGTON — The White House announced on Friday that President Biden would limit the number of refugees allowed into the United States this year to the historically low level set by the Trump administration, reversing an earlier promise to welcome more than 60,000 people fleeing war and persecution.
But the move to cap the number at 15,000 prompted such an immediate backlash from Democrats and human rights activists that the White House later retreated and promised to announce a final, increased number by May 15.
The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, did not specify how many refugees would be allowed into the country, but she did say that Mr. Biden’s initial goal of welcoming 62,500 seemed “unlikely.”
The wavering showed the Biden administration’s struggle to find its footing as it tries to reverse President Donald J. Trump’s harsh immigration policies amid a record surge of children and teenagers crossing the southwestern border.
“This Biden administration refugee admissions target is unacceptable,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Facing the greatest refugee crisis in our time, there is no reason to limit the number to 15,000. Say it ain’t so, President Joe.”
Unauthorized migrants crossing the border are processed differently from refugees, who are fully vetted and approved for resettlement before arriving. But Mr. Biden was concerned that lifting the Trump-era cap on refugees would overwhelm the already-strapped system, according to two senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss decision making.
Still, the Biden administration had been promising for months to raise the cap. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken notified Congress on Feb. 12 that the administration planned to allow up to 62,500 refugees to enter the United States in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, citing “grave humanitarian concerns” around the world.
But for two months, Mr. Biden did not sign a presidential determination that would have allowed refugees to board flights to America.
Maintaining the Trump-era admissions level of 15,000 leaves thousands of refugees stranded in camps in places like Kenya, Tanzania and Jordan. Roughly 33,000 refugees have already been vetted and are prepared to travel to the United States.
Jenny Yang, the vice president for advocacy and policy at World Relief, a resettlement agency affiliated with evangelical Christians, said “the walk back” from Mr. Biden to raise the cap “doesn’t change the reality” that, for now, the historically low cap remains in place.
“The president broke his promise once,” Ms. Yang said, “and at this point, he needs to back up his statements with concrete actions that will actually start to rebuild the refugee program again.”
The directive on Friday did include some changes to the Trump-era program, which gave priority to Iraqis who had worked for the United States military and to people, primarily Christians, who are facing religious persecution. It also disqualified most other Muslim and African refugees.
Mr. Biden is changing that by allowing in refugees based on the region they are fleeing. The carved-out slots include room for 7,000 Africans; 1,000 East Asians; 1,500 Europeans and Central Asians; and 3,000 Latin Americans and Caribbeans. It also includes 1,500 openings for those from the Near East and South Asia, and another 1,000 that are not linked to a specific region.
Ms. Psaki said the administration could not raise the cap as quickly as it wanted because of the “decimated refugee admissions program we inherited.” Administration officials have described a daunting task to resurrect that program.
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Refugee officers were reassigned from posts abroad that were shuttered, and their travel has been limited during the pandemic. And resettlement offices in the United States were forced to close because of financial constraints from the cuts to refugee admissions.
“America needs to rebuild our refugee resettlement program,” said Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, who said the administration would fill all 15,000 slots “and work with Congress on increasing admissions and building back numbers to which we’ve committed.”
But the changes to the program, and any potential rise in admissions next month, would be too late for some refugees who had prepared to travel to the United States this month after the administration made its initial commitment.
Asende Ecasa, 33, packed her belongings and left the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania last month expecting to arrive in the United States on March 4. After Mr. Biden delayed the admissions designation, Ms. Ecasa’s flight was canceled. The medical screening she got to ensure her travel has expired.
Her cousin Alex Majaliwa, who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., now has no idea when Ms. Ecasa will be allowed into the country.
“If possible, the president can really hear our suffering because we want to come to the nation to find our life, to improve our lives,” Mr. Majaliwa said. It took him years to be approved for resettlement in America.
But Biden administration officials, trying to explain the delay in raising admissions, said the thousands of unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border in recent weeks played a role in the president’s decision to leave the cap in place because the surge forced officials to dedicate resources to finding shelter space throughout the United States.
That logic was also used by the Trump administration to sharply cut refugee numbers, even though it is not quite so simple.
The argument also seemed to undercut comments made by Ms. Psaki earlier this month. Asked at a news briefing if the delay in the designation had anything to do with resources going toward the border, she said: “It’s not related to that. No.”
While the Department of Health and Human Services’s Office of Refugee Resettlement does play a role in responding to minors at the border and refugees overseas, the two immigrant populations are processed through separate lanes.
“These are two completely distinct pathways and programs,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the chief executive of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “America has always been able to walk and chew gum.”
Refugees receive government-funded assistance for housing, health care and job placement on arrival in communities around the United States. For minors who cross the border unaccompanied, the government separately funds temporary housing in shelters, where they must remain until their guardians have been screened.
The administration this month notified Congress of plans to move about $1.3 billion from other programs in the Department of Health and Human Services toward efforts for unaccompanied children, according to a person familiar with the notice, who disclosed it on the condition of anonymity.
Minors who enter the United States are entitled to request asylum and must be placed in a shelter managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, while refugees are not allowed to enter the country until they have passed multiple levels of vetting by the Departments of State and Homeland Security.
Members of Congress and immigration advocates criticized Mr. Biden’s decisions on Friday.
“President Biden has broken his promise to restore our humanity,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington. “We cannot turn our back on refugees around the world.”
Nazanin Ash, the vice president of policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee, said postponing an increase in the cap had real-life consequences.
“This is introducing harmful delays and confusion for refugees who remain in vulnerable situations and want to reunify with their families,” Ms. Ash said.
Christelle Igihozo, a college student in Boise, Idaho, arrived in the United States in 2018, having fled the Republic of Congo with her mother and four siblings when she was a child.
Working as a resettlement assistant at the International Rescue Committee’s branch in Boise, she said on Friday that she dreaded telling families still awaiting loved ones that it may take longer for them to arrive.
“This is really frustrating and heartbreaking,” Ms. Igihozo said. “Biden had promised the numbers would increase.”
Zolan Kanno-Youngs reported from Washington, and Miriam Jordan from Los Angeles. Emily Cochrane contributed reporting from Washington.