Opinion

Biden bungles the politics of refugees

A promise broken in service of appeasing the unappeasable right

During the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden promised he would reverse Donald Trump's hateful anti-refugee policies.

After taking office, the Biden administration specifically pledged to raise Trump's tiny 15,000 cap on the number of refugees allowed this year to 62,500. But so far the president has refused to follow through — on the contrary, on Friday he signed an order to speed up refugee processing but not to raise Trump's cap, and administration officials reportedly said he would not raise the cap this year. Only later, after the order prompted outrage from the left, the administration reversed course and announced a new refugee cap was forthcoming, but implied the number would still be somewhat less than Biden's promise. Right now, Biden is on course to oversee the smallest number of admitted refugees of any president in modern history, including Trump. In addition to causing terrible harm to thousands of people who trusted him to keep his word, this is a massive political blunder.

Biden administration sources have told reporters that the president is hesitating for purely political reasons. The reason is "political optics," reports CNN. Others "detect political concerns from the White House about expanding the refugee program at a moment when there is increasing pressure on Biden to be tougher on immigration and border security," reports The Washington Post.

That pressure is coming from two sources. First is mainstream TV journalists like NBC's Chuck Todd, who have been running overheated coverage stoking xenophobic panic about immigration. Second is right-wing media, which has done the same thing except with a lot more blatant racism. Fox News' Tucker Carlson in particular has been pushing the "great replacement" conspiracy theory (also known as "white genocide"), which comes from open white supremacists and anti-Semites. He recently argued on his show that "the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World … That's true." When criticized for this, he characteristically doubled down.

What Carlson said is almost exactly the same conspiracy theory cited by the right-wing terrorists who committed murder sprees in El Paso, Christchurch, and Pittsburgh. Overt white nationalists and neo-Nazis got the message, and gleefully celebrated online. "This segment is one of the best things Fox News has ever aired and was filled with ideas and talking points VDARE.com pioneered many years ago," tweeted one infamously racist publication. "Tucker Carlson confirms what white nationalists have been talking about for decades: the white population of the US and wider West is being deliberately and maliciously replaced," tweeted another.

Carlson's virulent racism is nauseating, but it also provides an important lesson. The American extreme right (which runs most right-wing media) is absolutely convinced that not only is Joe Biden already shepherding millions of refugees into the country, he is bent on the destruction of the white race. There is no reasoning with this position — no matter how hard Biden is on refugees, the right will not even notice. And because Chuck Todd and his ilk take their coverage cues from right-wing media so they can pretend to be "balanced," there is likely no avoiding some criticism from that quarter either.

In short, Biden probably can't avoid at least some negative press on the issue of immigration — but he can provide some distraction. He is forgetting one of the key lessons of the Trump era: the shortness of political attention spans. Constantly hemming and hawing on refugees keeps the issue boiling on the left and the right, and keeps reporters writing stories about why Biden is not living up to his promises. If he were to just rip off the band-aid, increase the cap (even 62,500 is far too low, given the backlog created by Trump), and move on to other things — ideally something completely trivial that would trigger the right, like announcing that July 4 is now Dr. Seuss Is Canceled Day or something — the issue would fade into the background.

Now, it is true that (thanks largely to the aforementioned media hysteria, part of a long campaign of anti-refugee demonization), raising the refugee cap is not terribly popular — one poll had it at the bottom of Biden's list of executive orders. But neither was it overwhelmingly unpopular, just nine points underwater, and only 48 percent against. It's the kind of thing that a president can conceivably change by pushing against media hate-mongers. Instead he is validating them.

Moreover, breaking a campaign promise will impose its own political cost. It will sow disillusionment and mistrust on the left, including the organized and vocal cohort of refugee advocacy groups (who are blisteringly furious at being betrayed), and make Biden a blatant liar — presidents generally at least try to keep their promises for a reason.

Finally, politics aside, we should not forget Biden's cowardice is playing hell with the lives of real people who are desperate to escape dire situations. More than 700 have already been cleared for entry into the U.S. in anticipation of the president's promise, going through a nightmare of paperwork to do so, only to be stuck in limbo because the president won't take five minutes to issue a simple order. One Tennessee man had been eagerly awaiting his wife to rejoin him from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, only to have the rug pulled out from under him. "It left him very devastated," his brother told The World. It's not out of the question that approved refugees could be killed while they are waiting.

Backtracking on refugees is cruel, bad politics, and dishonest. Mr. President: do the right thing.

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