Press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday refused to say whether the swift reversal by the White House on its planned 2021 refugee cap was due to outrage from congressional Democrats, who were upset that a memo from President Biden kept the Trump-era limit.
In a combative moment, Psaki challenged Fox News correspondent Kristin Fisher to explain the difference between a Friday memo from the president and her afternoon clarification, which she said were identical in substance.
“Once we reach 15,000, we will raise it. That was not accounted for in some of how people were … digesting the information,” Psaki said of the memo.
“I don’t think you’ve articulated to me what our change in policy was. What was our change in policy?” Psaki asked the reporter, referring to the 2021 fiscal year refugee cap.
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“Yes, there was a caveat that you could raise that cap later,” Fisher responded before Psaki cut her off.
“That’s a pretty important caveat,” Psaki said. “People weren’t understanding what we were conveying to the public.”
On Friday morning, a memorandum from Biden said, “The admission of up to 15,000 refugees remains justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest.”
It also said the number could be increased “as appropriate” if reached before the end of the fiscal year. But congressional Democrats were incensed at what seemed to be a walk-back of a Biden campaign promise to increase the cap to 125,000.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the “target is unacceptable.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said the policy was “flat out wrong.”
Later Friday, Psaki issued a statement clarifying that Biden’s “initial goal of 62,500” refugees admitted before Oct. 1 “seems unlikely” but that Biden is expected to set a “final, increased refugee cap” before May 15.
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The Biden memo expanded the eligibility criteria for refugees without officially raising the cap, which Psaki Monday framed as a reversal of policies from the Trump administration to make the refugee process more welcoming.
“That was important to him to take that first step and move it forward,” Psaki said. “The battle is not the cap. The issue has been the limitations that have been put in place in the past. We overturned those and changed those, and it was always meant to be a first step.”
Biden on Saturday also defended the move, citing the situation on the Southern border, which he described as a “crisis.”
“We’re going to increase the number [of refugees],” he told reporters. “The problem was that the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up on the border with young people. We couldn’t do two things at once. But now we are going to increase the number.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Friday, however, that he does not see that as a plausible explanation.
“To be clear: The asylum process at the southern border and the refugee process are completely separate immigration systems,” Blumenthal said. “Conflating the two constitutes caving to the politics of fear.”
On Monday, the reporter tried a second time to get Psaki to address the pushback from congressional Democrats, but Psaki continued to refuse to acknowledge it.
“I don’t think you’ve articulated what our change in policy is… What was our change from the morning to the afternoon?” Psaki said.
Psaki also said that the 125,000-refugee goal Biden set before was “aspirational” and blamed the Trump administration for leaving a “hollowed-out” system for processing refugees.
“The challenge is not the cap. The challenge is the ability to process, the funding, the staffing, and welcome refugees in,” Psaki said.
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Psaki also walked back Biden’s “crisis” comments in reference to the southern border from over the weekend.
The White House has steadfastly refused to use the word “crisis” to describe the situation on the southern border even as Republicans say the over-capacity migrant facilities that include children being kept in poor conditions is a crisis that Biden is at fault for.
“The president does not feel that children coming to our border seeking refuge from violence, economic hardships and other dire circumstances is a crisis,” Psaki said. “He does feel that the crisis in Central America and the dire circumstances that many are fleeing from that is a situation we need to… address.”
Fox News’ Adam Shaw and The Associated Press contributed to this report.