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President Biden announced new immigration restrictions Thursday, including the expansion of programs to remove people quickly without letting them seek asylum, in an attempt to address one of his administration’s most politically vulnerable issues at a time when the nation’s attention is focused on Republican disarray in the House.
The measures, which reflect a political shift to the center for Biden, will broaden his authority to grant legal entry to tens of thousands of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and Haitians into the country each month. But migrants from those countries who attempt to enter the United States without authorization will risk rapid expulsion to Mexico, as the administration plans to expand its use of a pandemic-era public health immigration policy known at Title 42.
Up to 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela would be admitted via “parole” each month, as long as they have a U.S. financial sponsor, officials said. The move amounted to a major expansion of a parole program that previously would accept only Venezuelans and capped the total number from that country at 24,000. The changes overall will probably mean fewer migrants from those four countries entering the United States illegally, and more unauthorized border crossers sent back to Mexico, which has agreed to accept 30,000 returns a month.
Migrants accepted through the parole program will be authorized to live and work in the United States for a two-year period, but those who cross illegally into Panama, Mexico or the United States after Thursday’s announcement will be ineligible, officials said.
The Venezuela parole program, which began in October, has reduced illegal crossings by 76 percent, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Biden’s new policies represent a move to the center on an issue that has loomed over the first two years of his administration. The changes are likely to draw challenges from immigration advocacy groups, because U.S. law says that anyone can apply for asylum if they set foot on U.S. soil. But officials say people are misusing those laws to cross the border to work, which is not grounds for humanitarian protection.
The White House said the measures “will expand and expedite legal pathways for orderly migration and result in new consequences for those who fail to use those legal pathways.”
“The actions we are announcing today will make things better, but will not fix the border problem completely,” Biden said in a speech from the White House. “Until Congress has acted, I can act where I have legal capacity to do so.”
Biden, who has said he will seek reelection in 2024, is contending with the political and operational fallout of two consecutive years of record numbers of migrants taken into custody at the U.S.-Mexico border, in part because of his more welcoming policies.
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Before taking office, Biden said he wanted an orderly system, not “2 million people on our border.” The number of border apprehensions jumped to 1.7 million during his first year in the White House, however, and soared to nearly 2.4 million in his second year. Biden campaigned on the promise that his administration’s immigration system would be “safe, orderly and humane”; his pivot toward amped-up enforcement suggests the White House sees immigration as a 2024 liability.
A few minutes after the president finished speaking, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — the son of Cuban refugees — told reporters the Biden administration is preparing additional measures to penalize asylum seekers who enter illegally instead of applying through CBP One, a government mobile app.
The administration’s solution is legally thorny and likely to anger immigration advocates and even some Democrats — and will probably do little to silence Biden’s Republican critics.
Biden announced that he will stop in El Paso on Sunday, ahead of a trip to Mexico City next week for a regional summit. On Wednesday, Biden told reporters he wanted to see “peace and security” at the border and is “going to see what’s going on.”
It will be his first trip to the border as president and will probably attract international attention and be politically fraught. But the disarray among Republican members of the House has provided some political cover for the White House.
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Republicans have sputtered in their effort to elect a speaker, a public display that Biden called “an embarrassment” on Wednesday. The effort stretched into its third day Thursday, as a group of right-wing holdouts continued to reject Republican Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), leaving Congress with a nonfunctioning lower chamber.
Many of Biden’s staunchest immigration critics are mired in the chaos — and some are the cause of it. The administration has long argued that the best way to improve the nation’s immigration system is for Congress to pass sweeping overhauls.
Like the Obama administration, the president is resorting to administrative measures because he has few legislative options with a deeply divided Congress and Republicans now in control of the House and vowing to attack the administration’s border policies.
“It is just a fact that years of congressional inaction and the previous administration’s destructive policies have created an immigration system that does not serve our national interests and that makes it much harder for legal migration to take place in a safe, orderly and humane way,” said the senior administration official who briefed reporters.
The president’s Republican critics have pressured him for months to visit the border at a time when federal authorities are making record numbers of immigration arrests. Biden and his top officials have dismissed that criticism, insisting he has had more urgent priorities to address.
Still, Biden acknowledged the political calculus on Thursday. “It’s clear that immigration is a political issue that extreme Republicans are always going to run on,” he said. “If the most extreme Republicans continue to demagogue this issue, I’m left with only one choice: to act on my own.”
But a member of the president’s own party was among the first to criticize his plan.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who along with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has pushed the Biden administration for months to end Title 42, criticized the administration’s plan, saying it goes too far in restricting migrants’ access to the border.
“The Biden Administration’s decision to expand Title 42, a disastrous and inhumane relic of the Trump Administration’s racist immigration agenda, is an affront to restoring rule of law at the border,” Menendez said in a statement. “Ultimately, this use of the parole authority is merely an attempt to replace our asylum laws, and thousands of asylum seekers waiting to present their cases will be hurt as a result.”
Biden’s plan would expel more migrants from Cuba and the other three countries each month under Title 42 than he did in all of last year, according to Customs and Border Protection data. Fewer than 22,000 of the 626,410 migrants apprehended from those countries last fiscal year were expelled.
Immigration has been a precarious issue for presidents for decades, with deadlock in Congress over how to deal with the flow of migrants across the border and historically backlogged immigration courts. Migrants from the four countries in Biden’s expanded parole plan, Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba and Nicaragua, are among the most difficult groups to manage at the border, since they are fleeing repressive or unstable governments that can make it difficult for U.S. immigration agents to quickly deport those who are ineligible to stay.
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On Nov. 15, a federal judge ruled against the continued use of Title 42, a public health order the Trump administration used to quell immigration at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2022, more than a million migrants were quickly expelled because of the order. Just after Christmas, the Supreme Court blocked the ending of the restrictions while it considers a bid by Republican state officials to keep the rules in place.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has led the legal battle to stop the expulsions since the Trump administration, criticized Biden for continuing to rely on Title 42, saying expelling migrants will send them into dangerous border cities where some have been kidnapped or killed. “This knee-jerk expansion of Title 42 will put more lives in grave danger,” Jonathan Blazer, the ACLU’s director of border strategies, said in a statement.
Mayorkas said the new asylum rules, developed in coordination with the Justice Department, will apply to those who move through Mexico and other nations en route to the United States but do not apply for refuge along the way.
“Individuals who circumvent available, established pathways to lawful migration, and also fail to seek protection in a country through which they traveled on their way to the United States, will be subject to a rebuttable presumption of asylum ineligibility,” he said.
Mayorkas said more details on the proposed changes, including exceptions to the rules, will be “available in the coming weeks.” The government will invite public comment on the measures, as required by law, he said.
The Trump administration attempted to introduce similar asylum restrictions in 2019 but those efforts were blocked in federal court. Mayorkas said the new measures would be different from Trump’s because the Biden administration has paired them with an expansion of lawful pathways for persecution victims to reach the United States safely.
“It really has no resemblance to the prior iteration of the transit ban the Trump administration employed,” Mayorkas said.
America First Legal, a nonprofit entity led by Stephen Miller, the chief architect of the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies, said in a statement that it would “pursue every available legal remedy” to stop Biden from expanding the parole programs, saying the U.S. government should not admit migrants who are ineligible to come here under existing laws.
Advocates for immigrants, meanwhile, said at a recent news conference that country-specific parole programs that aim to reduce border pressures are undermining federal asylum laws — and possibly forcing migrants to stay in dangerous places as they wait for approval.
Margaret Cargioli, a lawyer with the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, said the program was effectively screening out migrants who lack U.S. connections or money to buy airplane tickets. She said Title 42 was “put in place by a racist and xenophobic administration” bent on stopping immigration, not protecting public health.
“It really does go against the nature of … ‘My life is in danger. I need to get out,’” she said at a Dec. 29 news conference. “And that is what the essence of an asylum seeker is.”
The expansion of the parole programs, Mexican officials say, is a more constructive approach to solving a problem that has largely defined the bilateral relationship over the past decade. And the Mexican government said in a statement that the new programs expand access “into the U.S. labor market for up to 360,000 nationals of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela per year.”
Under the new program, Mexico will continue to face the challenge of housing thousands of migrants who are expelled from the United States, including those who aren’t processed under the new parole programs.
Gina Alzate, 24, crossed the border in El Paso in November with her husband and two children, ages 5 and 6. But they were expelled to Matamoros, a city about 800 miles away that has long been plagued by cartel violence and kidnapping. She said U.S. officials didn’t mention the parole program when they expelled the family in Texas.
Alzate is now one of about 300 Venezuelan migrants at Matamoros’s government-run “migrant integration shelter.” Because of a lack of space, more migrants have been turned away.
“None of us knew anything about the parole program until we got here,” Alzate said. “Even here, it’s confusing to know what the process is. We’ve been asking people from the church to help us understand.”
Kevin Sieff reported from Mexico City.