First 100: Refugee cap debate shows left’s role in Biden coalition


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The news fell on Friday, even though it had been dragging on for weeks. Joe Biden had dragged his feet by simply signing a piece of paper that his administration had already fully accepted and informed Congress, which would increase the refugee cap for the current fiscal year from 15,000 to 62,500. The delay had already cost thousands of refugees the opportunity to resettle in the United States, because the documents had expired and the long selection process had to start again. But on Friday, news leaked that the number would remain at 15,000. (This was purely an executive decision, as the mid-year change would come under an emergency declaration.)

It was a terrible decision. Refugees suffering from extremely vulnerable and miserable conditions would be hurt for months or even years, apparently because there was too much fearmongering about the completely separated situation at the border. As Reva Dhingra writes for us today, it is also a failure of global leadership. There is not a single point of congruence between the two, and refugee resettlement has traditionally been entirely bipartisan. But the political team was running the show, and spooked by, I don’t know, images of people of color stepping off a plane in the United States

Notice that Biden’s team hadn’t even moved to resettle enough refugees to reach that cap; we were on course to record the lowest number of admissions since the start of the program. But confirmation that the number would not be increased caused a major setback. Members of Congress, lawyers, just about anyone not named Stephen Miller were upset. (Literally; Miller was quoted in several articles about that.)

If it was the Clinton administration, yelling left would be the desired responnse. If it were the Obama administration, there might be an attempt at a response from the left, but in a way that would suggest that whatever decision was made that angered them was actually fair and just. . But this is the Biden administration, where the left is part of the governing coalition. This does not mean that they unilaterally get what they want, but it does mean that they are listened to. And sometimes that listening leads to a change in policy.

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In this case, White House Press Secretary Jan Psaki issued a statement which began “The president’s directive today has been the subject of some confusion.” She cited the poor state of the refugee admissions program after Trump and the charges against the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places unaccompanied minor children from the border, as justification for the advance announcement. But there was a final line, promising that “we expect the President to set a final and increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15.”

That would leave only four-and-a-half months to expedite resettlement, but Biden has already announced that the fiscal year 2022 cap (from October) will be 125,000, nearly ten times the current number. Raising the cap mid-year would help bolster this infrastructure to enable restored numbers; that is why it was desirable to move to 62,500 by mid-year.

Biden was truly incapable of defending politics in weekend notes. “The problem was that the refugee side was working on the crisis that ended at the border with the young people”, and “we couldn’t do two things at the same time”. But that’s really not true. Although it is the same office, overseas screening is a separate process and has already been carried out on 35,000 refugees. The flights are ready to go. If two things at the same time were impossible, there would be no wish to increase the number.

The truth is there was no defense. They simply did not want to allow immigrants into the country in the midst of a heavily demonized “border crisis” (it is not a crisis) occurring simultaneously. And lawmakers and coalition activists played their part in saying loud and clear that this was unacceptable. It didn’t restore the agreed number of 62,500 — I imagine the final number will be somewhere below — but it will probably save tens of thousands of people from those refugee camps.

There is an ongoing dialogue within the Democratic Party, for the first time in two generations. There is a round trip. It won’t lead to progressive nirvana, but it offers a chance for better politics.

Speaking of not getting it all

At first there was a logical constraint on the Biden infrastructure package suggesting that Democrats and Republicans could come together and find common ground on elements of the package, then the rest could be reserved for a more one-sided reconciliation bill. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) brought it up again yesterdayand Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) provided the blueprint for it, with an $800 billion bill that would focus on “core infrastructure.”

A smaller package is fine if it’s part of a process that eventually leads to something bigger. Coons and Cornyn seemed to be talking about two different things though; Cornyn thinks compromise is the whole package, while Coons repeats that first strategy, with the bipartisan bill followed by a Democrats-only reconciliation (or multiple reconciliations, though it’s not clear). But once you bifurcate the process like this, the decisions made for the smaller bill affect the bigger one. This comes into play with the reduction in the nominal corporate tax rate, which now appears likely to reach 25% instead of 28%.

It was already a compromise, because the restoration of the full rate of corporation tax would increase to 35%. I don’t really think it’s that important to offset infrastructure investment with revenue, so that doesn’t bother me too much. But if some Senate Democrats insist on “paying up” for the package, you’ve just taken out about $500 billion in compensation. And raising the corporate tax by a penny won’t win support from Republicans. The Democrats negotiate with themselves here.

Restoring tax fairness is going to be excruciating. It is easy to lower and difficult to raise. This is how we have reduced the tax base over the past 40 years.

What day in Biden’s presidency is it?

Day 90. Yes, we are in the last 10 days of this pop-up series.

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