Biden to Visit State Dept. as US Reengages with its Allies

February 4, 2021by Matthew Lee and Zeke Miller, Associated Press
FILE - In this Nov. 24, 2020, file photo President-elect Joe Biden listens as his Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is sending a message to his messengers.

Two weeks into the presidency, Biden on Thursday is visiting the State Department, the most senior of the Cabinet agencies, to underscore his promise to restore a multilateral approach to U.S. foreign policy and mark his administration’s reengagement with the international community.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, formerly the State Department’s top spokesperson, said Biden’s visit “is largely focused on his desire to thank the men and women who are Foreign Service officers, civil servants, who are the heart and soul of that institution and, frankly, our government.”

Psaki added that Biden would “talk broadly about foreign policy,” but said it wasn’t intended to be his first major foreign policy address as president.

Still, the trip is set to come in conjunction with a number of policy announcements meant to restore the nation’s place on the global stage.

During Thursday’s visit, officials said, Biden planned to announce that he will increase the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the United States to more than eight times the level at which President Donald Trump’s administration left it.

Trump drastically reduced the refugee admissions cap to only 15,000 before he left office. Biden’s plan would raise that number to 125,000, surpassing the ceiling set by President Barack Obama before he left office by 15,000.

The timing of Biden’s visit so early in his term is deliberate, as much symbolic as it is a nod to his interest in foreign policy and his years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he represented Delaware.

Trump had waited more than a year to visit the department, making his first appearance only for the swearing-in of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2018, and repeatedly assailed it as part of a “deep state” out to undermine his administration. Trump denigrated and dismissed its employees and unsuccessfully tried over multiple years to slash its budget by up to 35%.

Biden, by contrast, chose longtime confidant Antony Blinken to be his secretary of state, aiming to reinvigorate an American diplomatic corps that had been depleted and demoralized under four years of the Trump administration.

He will be greeted by employees eager to hear that diplomacy has returned to the top of the presidential agenda and that the expertise of long-serving foreign service officers will be valued. Although Biden’s first nominations and appointments to senior positions at State have trended heavily toward political appointees, the president and Blinken have pledged to promote career staffers.

The State Department visit comes after Biden moved on Wednesday to extend the last remaining treaty limiting Russian and American stockpiles of nuclear weapons, acting just two days before the pact was set to expire. It also follows days after a coup in Myanmar that has emerged as an early proving ground of Biden’s approach to multilateralism.

On another major foreign policy issue, Biden is weighing whether to cut off U.S. support that flourished under Trump for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. U.S. aid has been condemned by the international community and has helped contribute to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

At the State Department, Biden may also address asylum claims for residents of Hong Kong there, according to one official. He indicated during his campaign that he was interested in providing protection to people persecuted by the Chinese government.

Officials said Biden would not necessarily override the record low refugee cap of 15,000 that Trump set for the current budget year. Instead, the 125,000 figure would be proposed for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. The president is required by law to first consult Congress on his plans before making a determination.

Advocates had said that the backlog of tens of thousands of refugees left by the Trump administration had made it unlikely Biden’s target of resettling 125,000 refugees could be reached this year. It will take time to rebuild the pipeline. More than one-third of U.S. resettlement offices were forced to close over the past four years with the drop in refugee arrivals and hundreds of workers were let go.

Another issue that may be addressed Thursday is a review of vetting procedures for refugees, according to the officials and others. The Trump administration had put in place extreme background checks that had brought the program to a standstill, advocates say.

The Trump administration also narrowed eligibility this year, restricting which refugees are selected for resettlement to certain categories, including people persecuted because of religion and Iraqis whose assistance to the U.S. put them in danger.

Biden is expected to do away with those categories at some point and have the program return to using the long-standing referral system by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees that makes selections based on a person’s need to be resettled.

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