President Biden’s Irish ancestors escaped the Famine on coffin ships. Vice President Harris’s parents were scholars from India and Jamaica. And Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas came to the United States as a baby when his family fled Cuba.
It was a deflating and lonely moment for a president who had promised to leave President Donald Trump’s harsh immigration policies in the dustbin of history. Instead, Biden’s administration will continue to expel people who cross the border illegally amid record numbers of apprehensions — a move to the center that could threaten support from liberal groups if he seeks a second term. The plans drew immediate outrage from Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who themselves have failed for decades to create a functioning immigration system.
“I’m left with only one choice,” Biden said Thursday, “to act on my own.”
Biden, Harris and Mayorkas have built their careers in Democratic politics in part by touting their families’ immigration stories, a way to embrace the country’s diversity and reject calls in some quarters to close the borders and deport millions.
Daniel Tichenor, a political scientist at the University of Oregon who has tracked the United States’ shifting immigration debates, said Thursday’s speech was “an inflection point” for Biden as he prepares to visit the U.S.-Mexico border Sunday for the first time in his presidency.
“All contemporary Democratic presidents — Carter, Clinton, Obama, and now Biden — have found immigration to be a political minefield,” Tichenor said.
“On one side, the Democratic Party identity for generations has been framed as pro-immigrant, and significant portions of its base are Asian, Latino and other voters supportive of newcomers. On the other, his administration is under pressure to assert more control at the border — a political vulnerability for Democrats, among independent voters and in swing states like Arizona.”
Biden at first appeared to be one of the most liberal Democratic presidents on immigration yet, ripping up several Trump immigration policies in a frenzied first day at the White House. Republicans fought back in court and seized control of the public narrative as border apprehensions swelled. While Biden avoided visiting the border, Republican governors transported migrants on buses and airplanes to northern cities, including Washington and New York, where city leaders declared emergencies.
Some of those Republicans are among those expected to run for president in 2024. Like Trump, they are making immigration a core issue. At his second inauguration Tuesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said the federal government “has recklessly facilitated open borders, making a mockery of the rule of law.”
Two days later, the Biden administration rolled out fresh restrictions at the southern border to sharply reduce illegal crossings by widening the use of Trump’s pandemic-era policy known as Title 42. The policy allows border officials to expel migrants without hearings, sidestepping federal law that guarantees asylum seekers a chance to make their case inside the United States.
Biden’s dependence on the emergency public health authority as a tool of border control has become a glaring example of his conflicted needs and policy entanglements. Administration officials resisted ending Title 42 until Biden’s second year in office. Republican state officials fought him all the way to the Supreme Court, where a 5-to-4 ruling last month kept Title 42 in place for the time being.
Key elements of Biden’s immigration proposals
Now, Biden is expanding his administration’s use of the same policy it had been trying to lift. It will serve as the stick in his new system of incentives and deterrents for migrants trying to reach U.S. soil.
Under those new measures, up to 30,000 migrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti will be allowed to enter the United States on “parole” each month if they have financial sponsors here and pass background checks. Separately, migrants may schedule appointments to seek asylum at official border crossings via an app called “CBP One” instead of attempting illegal entry.
As many as 30,000 migrants a month will be expelled to Mexico under Title 42 if they cross into the United States illegally or enter Mexico or Panama without authorization, although humanitarian exceptions will be made, officials said.
Migrant advocates say that continuing Trump’s expulsions violates a principle the United States embraced after World War II: This country and others would not remove asylum seekers to countries where they could face persecution.
Melissa Crow, a lawyer fighting in court to end the expulsions, said at an advocates news conference Friday that Biden’s proposal that asylum seekers stay where they are to seek humanitarian protection is “callous” amid ample evidence that migrants who have been expelled to Mexico and other countries have been targeted for violence.
“People arriving at our border are often fleeing imminent threats to their lives, not to mention that they may not have cellphones, reliable internet access” or be able to use a government app to access protection, said Crow, the litigation director for the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California’s Hastings law school.
Biden said he sympathizes with asylum seekers. He often retells the story of how his father, a “righteous Christian,” taught him at the dinner table about the Holocaust and “how wrong it was that we turned away the St. Louis, a ship full of Jewish refugees from Europe,” forcing many to return home to their deaths.
But the president said this week that “the other side of this” is that Americans deserve border security. Many new arrivals are searching for work — which is not grounds for asylum — because the United States has the “strongest economy in the world.”
“Can’t blame them wanting to do it,” Biden said. “They chase their own American Dream in the greatest nation in the world,” like so many families, “including mine.”
Federal officials said they want to dissuade migrants from paying smugglers and showing up unannounced on the border, a practice that has led to dramatic scenes of migrants camped out on frigid streets in El Paso.
In the White House, the measures were viewed as a win for presidential advisers with a background in national security over the more-liberal immigration policy advocates who are also part of Biden’s team.
Emilio T. Gonzalez, a Cuban immigrant and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director under President George W. Bush (R), faulted Biden for allowing those advocates to influence his early policies, which Gonzalez said created the expectation that those who crossed into the United States illegally and sought asylum would not be sent back.
Apprehensions of such migrants soared from 1.7 million in Biden’s first year in office to nearly 2.4 million last year, the highest totals ever recorded on the southern border. About half were expelled, some more than once. The others were allowed to plead their cases but could face deportation if rejected.
“I think whoever he entrusted this issue to went way too far, too fast without really analyzing the consequences of what was to come,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez rejected Biden’s claims that Republicans are unwilling to negotiate on immigration but said they want orderly processes and not “a sea of humanity” on the border. “It’s one of process. It’s one of the law,” he said.
Conservative groups seeking tighter borders blasted Biden’s use of executive power to admit up to 360,000 additional migrants annually through parole authority, an option that has generally been reserved for exceptional circumstances. They likened the move to the creation of a parallel immigration system to bring in migrants who would not otherwise qualify for legal entry.
Public polling has consistently shown immigration as one of Biden’s weakest issues, with majorities of independent voters disapproving of his border management. GOP candidates used the issue as a campaign rallying cry ahead of the November midterms, but it wasn’t enough to carry them in key races in states including Arizona.
Andrea Flores, a former adviser to Biden, said it was understandable that the president’s team remains “spooked by the border” as the president weighs a likely 2024 reelection bid. Flores said she left the White House in frustration after the administration shipped planeloads of desperate Haitian migrants back to their homeland after a mass crossing into Del Rio, Tex., in September 2021.
“It’s an incredibly hard issue,” she said. “Those of us who care about democracy and the rise of fascism, and how disorderly migration system can fuel political movements that are detrimental, care about getting it right.”
“But the solution is not in the policies they rolled out,” said Flores, now an immigration adviser to Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a prominent critic of Biden’s enforcement measures.
She said the new policies could have an effect opposite to what Biden intends: bona fide asylum seekers could be sent back to Mexico after journeying to the border in search of refuge, and migrants with U.S. connections could click their way to a quick entry using a smartphone app.
“Who is going to get parole?” Flores said. “Are they the people who would be asylum seekers?”
“Otherwise we’re letting in people who wouldn’t qualify for our asylum laws through a parole process,” she said.
Leon Rodriguez, who ran U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during President Barack Obama’s second term, said “operational and political reality” imposes a ceiling on what a Democratic administration can do, regardless of ideals and intentions.
Obama was vilified by immigration advocates for carrying out record numbers of deportations and creating a network of detention centers for families after migrant parents with children began crossing in record numbers in 2014. But Obama also established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that shielded from deportation nearly 1 million “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the United States as minors.
Rodriguez, whose family arrived as refugees from Cuba, said that as a board member of HIAS, one of the nation’s official refugee resettlement organizations, he knows intimately “the tensions that went into the decision that Secretary Mayorkas, the president and the vice president had to make.”
“I’d like to believe we have a core set of humanitarian values that says, to the extent we’re able, our values are to offer refuge and other kinds of protection to victims of persecution,” he said. “But there are good reasons to deter people from trying to make the dangerous land journey to the U.S. border, where they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by criminal elements.”
To Rodriguez, critics who say Biden’s approach is no different from Trump’s are unfair.
“Trump’s approach was enforcement-only,” he said, whereas Biden is “trying to find the balance” between compassion and the government’s “finite capacity” at the border.
Officials said that after the launch in October of a program granting Venezuelans a way to enter legally on parole, border apprehensions for that group dropped sharply. They hope similar declines will follow extending that program to Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba. In all four countries, large numbers of citizens have been fleeing repressive governments or unstable social conditions.
In early December, a sudden influx of Nicaraguans and Cubans overwhelmed the shelters in El Paso, where Biden will visit the border on Sunday. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) responded to the rising numbers by deploying National Guard troops to line the banks of the Rio Grande with razor wire.
Border officials say crossings have eased significantly over the holidays.
By the time the president lands in Texas, the most visible signs of crisis will have been cleaned up.