Joe Biden entered office needing, or at least wanting, to accomplish three major immigration tasks: (1) move a big reform bill through Congress, (2) undo the previous president’s various executive actions, and (3) avoid the border crises that have plagued U.S. presidents repeatedly for decades.
While Biden is pushing forward on the first two goals, he’s unlikely to get anything major passed in Congress. What’s more his efforts appear to be costing him the third goal as migrants rush the southern border and the executive branch struggles to deal with it.
Biden’s big immigration proposal, which I covered in more detail here back in January, is extremely aggressive. It would legalize illegal immigrants and expand legal immigration too, while offering few reliable promises regarding border security.
I initially figured that, like so many liberal-wish-list bills this year, it would probably pass the Democratic House but fail in the evenly divided Senate, where breaking a filibuster would require the assent of ten Republicans. The GOP just isn’t biting this time around: Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that pushed immigration reform back in 2013, promptly rejected the bill’s amnesty and called it a “non-starter.” Another Republican Gang of Eight member, Lindsey Graham, opposes it as well.
But then even the House hit some snags and ended up delaying the bill.
So this legislation faces long odds, given that all the hurdles in the Senate are still waiting once the House sorts things out (barring the death of the filibuster). Maybe there are smaller, more-bipartisan immigration issues where the two houses can find agreement — or ways that Senate Democrats can enact reforms through the “reconciliation” process, which is immune from filibusters but limited to budget matters. But gone are the days when a handful of business- and Hispanic-vote-minded Republicans could team up with Democrats and have a chance to pass the holy grail of “comprehensive immigration reform.”
On executive action, meanwhile, Biden does not rely on votes in the House and Senate — and there are hundreds of Trump immigration policies for him to reverse. Here he’s moved fairly quickly, though activists are upset that he hasn’t done more.
He’s preserving the illegal program that protects “Dreamers” who came as minors. Border-wall construction is halted. The administration is working to undo Trump’s tightening-up of the “public-charge” rule that applies to immigrants likely to rely on welfare programs. Thousands of Venezuelans will get “Temporary Protected Status.” The so-called Muslim ban is gone too. At the border, the administration is unwinding the “remain in Mexico” policy (where migrants wait on the other side of the border while awaiting immigration decisions) and releasing some migrants inside the country.
But these shifts come with the cost of encouraging a rush on the border, as the New York Times detailed this week. Specifically, unaccompanied minors are showing up at an alarming clip: The number of kids detained has tripled in just the last two weeks.
The administration has had to reopen unused facilities to care for them and might still run out of capacity in the coming weeks. Some kids are being held longer than they’re supposed to be thanks to the backlog. This has prompted outcries about “kids in cages,” though it’s worth noting that these kids arrived unaccompanied and were not deliberately separated from the adults they came with, as happened under Trump’s “family-separation” policy for several months in 2018.
The Times is refreshingly frank about why the current surge is happening:
[Biden’s] approach — to broadly reopen the nation’s borders to vulnerable children with what he hopes will be a welcoming contrast to Trump’s erection of legal and physical barriers — is already at risk from the grim realities of migration patterns that have roiled the globe for years. Sensing a change in tone and approach after Trump’s defeat, migrants are once again fleeing poverty, violence and the devastation left by hurricanes and heading north toward the United States.
By the same token, the Los Angeles Times editorial board has noted that the migrants are “emboldened by the end of the Trump era.” Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Mexico “is worried the new U.S. administration’s asylum policies are stoking illegal immigration and creating business for organized crime.” The administration’s own southern-border coordinator has even conceded, as Politico summarized, that the administration has “sometimes struggled to convey an ultimately promising message to migrants while also urging them not to travel to the U.S. until the country’s immigration system was better equipped.”
Eventually, they want migrants to try any legal claim that might get them into the U.S. But they don’t want, well, this. Indeed, Biden’s proposal to legalize illegal immigrants would exclude those who came this year.
A broad liberalization of immigration controls, with promises of more to come, has caused an immediate rush on the border? Who could have guessed?
Whether he wanted it or not, Biden owns what’s happening now, and that bodes poorly for his chances of passing his desired reforms.