WASHINGTON — In an effort to address the humanitarian and political crisis at the U.S. border with Mexico, President Biden used a Thursday address to announce steps to make it easier for migrants to apply for asylum without first making what is often a dangerous trek. He also said that migrants who declined to take those steps would be promptly expelled if they try to enter the United States.
“Do not — do not — just show up at the border,” the president said from the White House, where he was joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been tasked with addressing the root causes of migration. “Stay where you are, and apply legally from there.”
The new measures expand the “parole” policy that has been in place since October — but only for Venezuelan asylum seekers, who have been fleeing political repression and poverty. It mandates that migrants undergo a background check and find a sponsor in the United States. If they are granted parole, migrants will be allowed to live and work in the U.S. for two years.
The administration says the parole policy led to a 90% reduction in attempted illegal crossings by Venezuelans.
Now migrants from Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti will be eligible for the same provisions, the president said Thursday, with a total of 30,000 migrants from the four countries to be granted parole each month.
The new policy is intended to keep migrants from arriving at the border without having applied for asylum in their home country. With border patrol officers and immigration judges in short supply, the Biden administration is doing what it can to discourage migrants from continuing to overtax a system that is unlikely to experience a much-needed overhaul anytime soon.
“Starting today, if you don't apply through the legal process, you will not be eligible for this new parole program," Biden warned, while acknowledging the centrality of immigration to the American experience. Americans generally share in the president’s view, but nativist sentiments have been rising.
Biden described immigration as a “human right,” and invoked the plight of Jews seeking to escape Nazi Germany during the 1930s, but his administration is nevertheless imposing stricter penalties for unauthorized border crossings. Migrants apprehended while attempting to enter the United States without proper authorization will face “expedited removal to their country of origin and subject to a five-year ban on reentry,” a White House memorandum said. The policy is “effective immediately.”
The president said that Mexico had agreed to accept 30,000 migrants per month who were expelled from the United States. Biden will travel to Mexico City next week for a meeting with North American leaders. Before he does, however, he will visit El Paso, Texas, a border city whose Democratic mayor declared a state of emergency last month.
Immigration advocates called the new measures onerous and out of step with Biden’s campaign promises. The restrictions on how and where asylum can be sought are “right out of the Trump playbook,” Eleanor Acer of Human Rights Fights wrote on Twitter.
Inside the White House, there is widespread recognition that illegal immigration poses a significant political challenge to Biden. The problem is likely to be exacerbated when Title 42, which was instituted during the pandemic and allows for the expulsion of migrants on public health grounds, comes to an end. The policy, implemented by the Trump administration, has been opposed by Biden — but was upheld by the Supreme Court last month.
The Supreme Court decision provided something of a reprieve for Biden, since the eventual demise of Title 42 is widely expected to put further strain on the U.S. immigration system.
“Title 42 or not, the border is not open,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said at his own press conference, which closely followed the president’s. He said that migrants attempting unlawful entry would be subject to “swift expulsion” — if not under Title 42, then under the provisions of federal immigration statutes known as Title 8.
Mayorkas and Biden both said they would “surge” federal resources to help deal with the apprehension and processing of migrants. The White House has also ramped up its efforts to break up the human smuggling networks that prey on migrants.
Biden has been roundly criticized by conservatives, and some Democrats, for not moving more forcefully to address the monthly influx of more than 200,000 asylum seekers fleeing poverty, violence and authoritarian regimes in countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti and Nicaragua.
For months, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been sending busloads of migrants to New York and Washington, D.C., in what he and his supporters have described as an effort to force progressive areas of the country to share in the hardship of handling the arrival of migrants and their needs. He was joined in September by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who helped engineer a widely condemned stunt in which migrants were flown from Texas to the liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
Earlier this week, however, Jared Polis of Colorado became the first Democratic governor to announce he would devote $5 million to help bus migrants from Denver, where they have recently been arriving in droves, to New York City, a move swiftly denounced by Mayor Eric Adams, also a moderate Democrat.
Efforts to transport migrants out of Denver had already been underway for weeks, though without the governor’s public involvement. A potential presidential candidate, Polis denied suggestions that his policy was anything akin to those of Abbott and DeSantis.
“I think what we very thoughtfully asked ourselves in Colorado is how can we help folks who have been through a long journey,” he told the Colorado Sun on Wednesday.
In his White House remarks, Biden blamed Congress for failing to enact the kind of immigration reform that members of both parties have described as necessary. Despite efforts during the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, lawmakers have failed to agree on how to handle the questions of both legal and illegal immigration.
That failure provided an opening for Donald Trump, who launched his presidential campaign in 2015 with a diatribe against illegal immigration from Mexico. But his plan to build a wall along the nation’s southern border was never completed, and the influx of migrants continued.
Biden was a senator from Delaware in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed the most comprehensive immigration law in decades, which provided amnesty to millions of people who had entered the country illegally.
Since then, the Republican Party has become increasingly hostile to immigration, while some progressives have called for the outright abolition of immigration enforcement agencies. And as the ideological divide between the two parties widens, the possibility of an agreement on substantive policy narrows.
“We have a patchwork system that simply doesn’t work as it should,” Biden said.