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On Sunday, President Biden was in El Paso, making his first visit to the border since he took office. He met with local leaders and toured the area, on this stopover on his way to the North American Leaders’ Summit in Mexico. Biden’s trip was probably designed to appease critics who have accused him of not caring about the border, and to help bring up his low approval rating on immigration. Just 37 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the issue.
More consequential — and problematic — than Biden’s border visit are the changes in immigration policy that the president announced three days earlier, on Thursday. These measures seem to have been constructed for political purposes rather than to strengthen asylum law or to help migrants.
To be clear, applying for asylum requires physical presence in the U.S. It is a legal right under U.S. law. The administration, however, is trying to find ways to circumvent this reality.
Under Biden’s new policies, 30,000 migrants a month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela will be allowed to enter the U.S. on humanitarian grounds. Thirty thousand per month may seem like a generous number, except that in November, over 82,000 migrants from those countries were apprehended at the border — more than twice the number that the new policy would allow in.
Biden said that the process he unveiled last week “is orderly, it’s safe and humane, and it works.”
But we don’t know that yet.
What we do know is that qualifying for this form of entry will not be easy. Potential migrants must apply from their home country (they can use a phone app) and already have a U.S. sponsor. Yet people fleeing for their lives do not have time to download an app, find a qualified American sponsor, and wait to be approved for entry by the U.S. government. This impractical policy will exclude many vulnerable people without connections and financial resources. And going forward, migrants from these countries who don’t follow the new procedures will be turned away at the border, in an expansion of the Title 42 program.
Title 42 is a Trump-era policy that lets the U.S. expel migrants swiftly on public health grounds. Following a series of legal challenges, it is currently slated for review by the Supreme Court. The Biden administration has decried the use of Title 42. Yet if the president is against Title 42, why is he expanding it?
The Department of Homeland Security is also considering a policy that would require migrants to apply for asylum in the first country they pass through after leaving their homeland. Under Trump, a similar proposal known as the “transit ban,” was struck down in federal court.
This proposal is unrealistic, too. It expects thousands of migrants from South and Central America to apply for asylum in, say, El Salvador and Guatemala, simply because they may pass though those nations on their way here. These smaller nations do not have adequate asylum systems in place, and some of these countries are dangerous as well. We cannot “outsource” our asylum issues to them.
Biden’s new measures won’t do anything for the thousands of migrants already waiting to enter the U.S. on the Mexican side of the border. These potential asylum-seekers will remain in limbo, stranded and at risk for kidnapping, trafficking, and murder. Their numbers will only grow if the administration keeps on expelling people under Title 42.
On the positive side, the Biden administration is planning to increase the number of refugees accepted from the western hemisphere, from 15,000 to 20,000 a year in 2023/2024. Still, that does not justify disregarding our humanitarian obligations.
True, Biden deserves credit for tackling a complex issue in a thoughtful manner. On immigration, he has an enormous task because Congress has abdicated its responsibility to come up with permanent solutions. But pairing a small expansion of legal migration with significant restrictions on asylum will likely harm more people than it helps. If the president were hoping to find a middle ground on immigration, it is the wrong approach. Republicans will continue to denounce what they call Biden’s “open borders.” Immigrant advocacy groups and some Democrats have already expressed disappointment with these new policies. So in aiming to please everyone, Biden is on track to please no one.
The good news is that Biden can change course. Consider that 70 percent of Americans view immigration as a benefit to the U.S., which suggests that the public is open to humane immigration fixes. Finding such solutions must start with respecting the human rights of migrants fleeing violence and persecution.
As a candidate, Biden pledged to help the U.S. live up to our ideals as a nation that welcomes immigrants. It’s past time for him to live up to those promises. Instead of restricting our asylum system, the president must find ways to reform and expand it — while honoring the rule of law.
Raul Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.
Biden immigration policy