President Biden revealed a new approach to border security on Thursday, planning a massive path for some migrants from Haiti, Cuba and Nicaragua to reach the U.S. while promising Trump-style expulsions and blockades to stop those who refuse to use his avenues of entry.
He announced the carrot-and-stick approach after two years of unprecedented chaos at the southern border. It belatedly gives Mr. Biden some concrete answers to dealing with the crisis.
The legal pathway would cover up to 30,000 people a month from four countries. It allows a two-year permit to live and work in the U.S. while trying to find a more permanent status.
Mexico has agreed to take back up to 30,000 people a month who try to jump the southern border without going through the pathway. That return-to-Mexico policy is similar to the one used by the Trump administration to solve the 2019 border surge.
At the White House, Mr. Biden called for both political parties to embrace his approach.
“This is a hard one to deal with, but we have to deal with it,” he said.
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“These actions alone that I’m going to announce, they are not going to fix our immigration system, but they can help us a good deal,” he said.
Administration officials called the legal program “unprecedented.”
“We view this 30,000 a month as really, truly groundbreaking,” one official said.
The president made the announcement ahead of his belated first trip to the border next week.
It also marks a stunning flex of executive power and one that could be challenged in the courts by both sides of the immigration debate. Immigrant rights activists say pushing people back to Mexico denies them their legal right to claim asylum, while legal experts on the right question Mr. Biden’s expansive use of “parole” to admit migrants outside the system created by Congress.
“This is one of the most egregious, unlawful abuses of humanitarian parole authority in American history,” said R.J. Hauman, head of government relations at the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “‘Case by case’ has morphed into industrial-scale processing.”
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Legal arguments aside, the administration says the plan will work.
Officials have been conducting a trial run with Venezuela after a surge of migrants from that country threatened to overwhelm the border in the fall. The administration in October announced its policy of paroling some Venezuelans who applied from abroad while sending others back to Mexico.
The effect was to dramatically cut unauthorized crossings, from 33,804 at the southern border in September to 7,931 in November.
That program now will be expanded to include migrants from Haiti, Cuba and Nicaragua, who also are contributing to the border chaos.
The administration said it will parole up to 30,000 people from those four countries every month. Mexico will take back 30,000 more who are expelled.
More than 82,000 people from those four countries were nabbed at the southern border in November. They were some of the 233,740 illegal crossers caught by Customs and Border Protection agents and officers.
In October 2020, the month before Mr. Biden was elected, CBP nabbed just 71,929 migrants jumping the southern border.
Of those, 90% — 64,894 — were expelled under the Title 42 pandemic emergency policy that allowed the expedited removal of border jumpers to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Experts say the level of mayhem at the border comes down to whether migrants get what they want — quick release — or whether they are removed. When more people are caught and released, more are enticed to make the attempt.
The Trump team, using a combination of Title 42, the “Remain in Mexico” policy and new rules restricting people from traveling across other countries to claim asylum in the U.S., effectively ended catch-and-release.
Under Mr. Biden, roughly 100,000 migrants a month are caught and released, according to estimates. Some will go on to file asylum claims, though most will fail to win those cases. If past practice holds, most will remain even after their cases fail, and they will blend into the shadows with 11 million other illegal immigrants in the U.S.
The newcomers have spread out across the U.S., overwhelming social services in cities such as New York and the District of Columbia.
Other yardsticks are also off the charts.
The amount of fentanyl coming across the southern border has reached cataclysmic levels. Border Patrol agents also have detected an unprecedented number of people on the terrorism watchlist trying to sneak in.
Migrant deaths have reached record highs, while smuggling cartels have made record profits off the surge of people. The Washington Times’ database of smuggling cases shows Mexicans paying up to $12,000 to be smuggled into the country. Those from Central America pay as much as $20,000.
A Times analysis last year pegged the total size of the smuggling economy at more than $20 billion.
Administration officials pointed to the cartels as one reason for adopting the carrot-and-stick approach.
“What we’re trying to do is take the smugglers out of the equation,” one official told reporters. “We have seen so many tragedies over the last year that are avoidable, and we’re hoping to give migrants the opportunity to not have to put their lives in the hands of these callous organizations.”
Officials also sought to distinguish their approach from the Trump administration. They said the pathway for 30,000 people a month creates a legal outlet for those who want to come.
“They will result in more, not less, legal pathways,” one official said.
To qualify, migrants must go through a records check and get a sponsor in the U.S. That is a low bar, officials said, because charity groups are working to round up sponsors. They even have a smartphone app that can be used to fill out the application.
The administration said it will reserve up to 20,000 slots for refugee admissions from the Western Hemisphere in 2023 and 2024, creating another outlet for those looking to reach the U.S.
The policies were announced even while Mr. Biden was fighting over Title 42 in the courts.
The case has reached the Supreme Court, which last week ordered the policy to remain in effect until the justices issue an opinion. They have scheduled oral arguments for February.
That move gives the Biden administration more time to prepare.
Administration officials said they are trying to create a more robust system to deal with immigrants once Title 42 does end.
Part of that is making use of what is known as expedited removal, a speedy deportation.
Under previous administrations, that was a powerful tool. Of those put into expedited removal in 2015, under President Obama, nearly 70% were ousted that year.
Under Mr. Biden in 2022, just 7% of those put into expedited removal were ousted, according to Department of Homeland Security data obtained and revealed by Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican.
Officials told reporters Thursday that they are trying to add more people to the system to speed up those cases.