- Biden is upholding Trump-era policies on issues like refugee admissions and arms sales.
- Progressives and advocacy groups say Biden is violating his pledge to prioritize human rights.
- AOC called Biden’s decision to uphold Trump’s refugee cap “completely and utterly unacceptable.”
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
President Joe Biden promised that his foreign policy would mark a major departure from former President Donald Trump, pledging to put human rights and democracy at the center of his approach to global affairs. But on issues ranging from US relations with Gulf states to refugees, Biden is continuing many of Trump’s most divisive and controversial policies and practices – and both progressives in Congress and advocacy groups are not happy.
Trump repeatedly demonized refugees, painting them as a threat to the US, and his administration set the lowest ever cap on refugee admissions for the 2021 fiscal year. On the campaign trail and in the early weeks of his presidency, Biden vowed to reverse that trend and lambasted Trump over his xenophobic refugee policy.
“We used to allow refugees – 125,000 refugees in the United States in a yearly basis,” Biden said during a CNN town hall in February. “It was as high as 250,000. Trump cut it to 5,000. Come with me into Sierra Leone. Come with me into parts of Lebanon. Come with me around the world and see people piled up in camps, kids dying, no way out, refugees fleeing from persecution. We, the United States, used to do our part. We were part of that. We were – and, you know, that’s – you know, ‘send me your huddled masses.’ Come on.”
But the president is now walking back on a promise to open America’s doors to 62,500 refugees this fiscal year, and is keeping Trump’s historically low cap of 15,000 in place, per a directive the president issued on Friday.
After this story was published, the White House said Biden by May 15 would announce a new, increased refugee cap.
Biden is also moving to speed up admissions and change the regional allocation of refugees, ending a Trump policy that effectively disqualified most refugees from African and Muslim-majority countries.
The president’s decision-making on this has seemingly been influenced by Republican criticism over his administration’s handling of a historic number of migrant arrivals at the US-Mexico border in recent months. GOP leaders have referred to the surge as a “crisis,” blaming it on by Biden’s more welcoming immigration messaging.
Human rights groups, refugee advocates, and some congressional Democrats ripped into Biden’s decision to retain Trump’s refugee cap.
“Completely and utterly unacceptable,” said Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “Biden promised to welcome immigrants, and people voted for him based on that promise. Upholding the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump admin, [including] the historically low + plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong. Keep your promise.”
Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state said Biden has “broken his promise to restore our humanity.”
“This is incredibly disappointing. The U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world and we can’t do better?” Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, tweeted on Friday.
Joanne Lin, the National Director of Advocacy and Government Relations at Amnesty International, in a statement said Biden is “turning his back on tens of thousands of refugees around the world who have been approved to come to the United States.”
“Biden had the opportunity to fulfill his campaign pledge and to deliver on his promises to protect the rights of and well-being of refugees, to place human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy, and to restore U.S. global leadership. He squandered that opportunity today,” Lin added.
Biden’s human rights problem
Beyond the decision on refugees, Biden already had a big week when it comes to foreign policy. The president announced he’s pulling all remaining US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, bringing an end to the longest conflict in US history. He slapped new sanctions on Russia and called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to deescalate tensions amid a massive troop buildup along Ukraine’s borders. Meanwhile, US officials participated in indirect talks with Iranian officials in Vienna aimed at restoring the Iran nuclear deal.
Less than 100 days into his presidency, Biden has already reversed or moved to roll-back many of Trump’s biggest foreign policy changes. But as evidenced by the decision on refugees, Biden is not pulling a complete 180 when it comes to international relations – and he’s facing growing accusations of talking big on human rights without fully backing it up.
On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But Biden did not sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over Khashoggi’s killing, even after the release of a declassified intelligence report directly implicating the Saudi leader in the brutal murder.
“It is extremely problematic, in my view, if not dangerous, to acknowledge someone’s culpability and then to tell that someone, ‘But we won’t do anything, please proceed as if have we have said nothing’,” Agnes Callamard, the new chief of Amnesty International who spearheaded a UN inquiry into Khashoggi’s killing, said of Biden.
More recently, Biden decided to move forward with a Trump era arms deal with the UAE involving the transfer of roughly $23 billion worth of advanced weaponry – including F-35s and drones. The UAE has played an intricate role in the devastating war in Yemen, where US-made bombs have been used in operations leading to civilian deaths.
In February, Biden announced he’s moving to end to US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Critics say this arms deal doesn’t exactly jive with that move and Biden’s broader promise to prioritize human rights.
Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that Biden’s advancement of Trump’s arm deal with the UAE means his administration “has backed out of its pledge” on Yemen and warned the US now risks complicity in future human rights violations.
“Trying to understand how a massive arms sale to a repressive authoritarian government that bankrolled regional anti-democratic counterrevolutions, backs a Libyan warlord, and helped rubble Yemen (a partial list) strengthens a rules-based international order,” Matt Duss, foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, said in a tweet.
Duss has praised Biden on other foreign policy moves, such as the president’s decision to tap Antony Blinken as Secretary of State. But his criticism of Biden on the UAE sale is emblematic of evolving discontentment among progressives and human rights groups when it comes to the president’s foreign policy.