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Biden announces new asylum cap in bid to deter illegal crossings

A reporter tries to ask a question after President Biden finishes making remarks regarding his executive actions on immigration Tuesday.  (Craig Hudson)
By Nick Miroff and Maria Sacchetti Washington Post

President Biden announced new measures Tuesday that will block migrants’ access to the U.S. asylum system when illegal border crossings are at emergency levels, a move aimed at shoring up one of his biggest vulnerabilities to re-election in November.

“We must face the simple truth: To protect America as a land that welcomes immigrants, we must first secure the border and secure it now,” Biden said in prepared remarks at the White House. “If the United States doesn’t secure our border, there’s no limit to the number of people who may try to come here.”

Biden’s executive actions, effective at the end of the day Tuesday, impose broad restrictions on asylum as long as illegal border crossings remain above an average of 2,500 per day, administration officials said.

Migrants ineligible for protection will be returned to their home countries or Mexico unless they express a convincing fear of persecution that would qualify them for an exemption under tougher screening procedures, administration officials said.

The move followed years of record levels of illegal crossings and blistering Republican attacks on the president’s record.

“While these steps are important, they’re not enough to truly secure the border,” Biden said, making the announcement flanked by lawmakers and city officials from border states. “We have to change our laws.”

Biden officials said the moves are a stopgap made necessary by the repeated failure of a bipartisan bill this year that would have combined the asylum cap with billions of dollars in additional funding for immigration enforcement.

Republicans voted against the bill as recently as last month after opposition from presumptive GOP nominee and former President Donald Trump and concerns that it would hurt him in an election year.

The American Civil Liberties Union immediately said it will challenge the Biden measures in court. The organization has led lawsuits against attempts to restrict asylum under Biden and Trump.

“We intend to sue,” ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt said in a statement minutes after the White House announced the policy. “An asylum ban was illegal under Trump and is just as illegal now.”

Without additional funding, the administration’s ability to close the border to illegal crossings may face many of the same limitations that have hampered previous efforts to deter migration by curbing asylum access. U.S. border authorities lack detention space, deportation capacity and a sufficient number of asylum officers to uphold the basic U.S. legal obligations to prevent someone from being sent home to face torture, death or other grievous harm.

Since Biden took office, Mexican authorities have agreed for the first time to take back large numbers of non-Mexican border crossers deemed ineligible for U.S. asylum. But Mexico generally limits returns to Central Americans, Cubans, Venezuelans and some Haitians.

That leaves U.S. authorities still facing significant challenges to quick deportations for the record numbers of migrants arriving from other nations in South America, Africa and Asia, including China.

“We know from the past decade of border policy that any attempt to stem unauthorized migration with asylum bans alone will fail,” said Andrea Flores, a former Biden official who is now at the immigration advocacy group fwd.us. “Smugglers will adjust, and vulnerable people will be sent to more dangerous locations along the border.”

The temporary restrictions – to be imposed during “emergency border circumstances,” according to policy documents published Tuesday – will lift if the secretary of homeland security determines that illegal crossings have fallen below a daily average of 1,500 for seven consecutive days.

Unaccompanied minors who cross the border will be exempt from the restrictions, officials said, as well as migrants who are in medical distress or facing other immediate life threats.

Biden’s measures come as border crossings remain high by historical standards but down about 50% from the record levels set in December, when the president’s weak poll ratings on the issue tumbled even lower. In recent weeks, illegal crossings have averaged about 3,700 per day along the U.S.-Mexico border, where migrants – including large numbers of families and children – surrender to U.S. authorities and request protection.

The Biden administration does not hold family groups in immigration detention, and family groups are generally returned and deported at lower rates than single adults.

The restrictions quickly drew remarks from Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.) and other Republicans called the new policy a political ploy to appease voters ahead of the presidential election.

“The simple fact of the matter is that the same laws that were in effect back when President Trump was in office are still in effect, but the difference is the unwillingness of this White House and this administration simply to enforce the law,” Cornyn said.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) slammed the policy in a statement that accused Biden of “reviving Trump’s asylum ban.”

“President Biden has undermined American values and abandoned our nation’s obligations to provide people fleeing persecution, violence, and authoritarianism with an opportunity to seek refuge in the U.S.,” Padilla said. “This asylum ban will fail to address the challenges at our border, just as it did under the Trump Administration. It will lead to people with legitimate asylum claims being prevented from seeking safety and returned to harm.”

Under U.S. law, anyone who reaches American soil has the right to seek asylum or another form of protection, regardless of how they enter. Biden will rely on presidential authorities in U.S. immigration law to temporarily suspend illegal entries on a temporary basis, administration officials said, citing Sections 212(f) and 215(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

The Mexican government said its president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and Biden discussed the new measures. Mexican officials posted a statement on social media reiterating López Obrador’s requests to establish a fund of $20 billion a year to help poor communities in Latin America and the Caribbean, and to lift economic sanctions on Cuba.

Democrats have worried for months that a possible summer migration surge could overwhelm the Border Patrol and harm the president’s chances against Trump in the Nov. 5 election.

The Biden administration says it has allowed historic numbers of migrants to enter legally, if they have applied first. Officials say they cannot manage large numbers of unexpected arrivals, which are part of a global trend of mass migration driven by poverty, climate change and violence.

Biden officials in May 2023 ended Title 42 border policy expulsions and created new asylum restrictions, which are technically still in effect despite legal challenges, barring anyone from seeking asylum unless they have tried unsuccessfully to apply for protection elsewhere.

Advocates for immigrants say Biden’s plan sets the first-ever numerical cap on seeking asylum, a protection that has been available for decades to foreigners who set foot on U.S. soil. To qualify, they must be escaping persecution based on race, religion or other protected grounds, and federal law says it doesn’t matter if they crossed into the United States illegally.

Biden’s new policy also requires that migrants “manifest” their fears of being deported instead of having an immigration official ask if they are afraid – a practice informally known as the “shout test.”

Since 1996, federal officials putting immigrants in expedited deportation proceedings have been required to ask them if they are afraid to return home and why, among other things, lawyers said. If migrants expressed fear, they were automatically referred to an asylum officer for additional screening, possibly to stay in the United States.

Under the new rule, officials will no longer ask those questions and will instead refer migrants for additional screening only if they appear to be afraid – either from something they said or their behavior, such as “shaking, crying or signs of abuse.”

Advocates have expressed concerns about using this test, which was in place on the southern border until the Title 42 policy expulsions ended, according to a report published in January by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California College of the Law at San Francisco.

Researchers found the “shout test” meant far fewer migrants were referred to protection screenings because border agents allegedly did not heed their concerns. In other cases, migrants lacked interpreters or were afraid to speak. That means migrants could be swiftly deported to countries where they might be killed, advocates said.

“To be clear, this executive action will not fix the problems plaguing the border,” said Amy Fischer, director of refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA.

Biden officials have defended the president’s restrictions as part of a more balanced approach that includes a major expansion of opportunities for migrants to enter the United States legally. The president is allowing about 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter legally if they apply through a sponsor in the United States.

U.S. officials are also granting nearly 1,500 appointments along the southern border per day for migrants and asylum seekers who use a government mobile app, CBP One. Those appointments are unaffected by the new asylum restrictions and will not count toward the numeric threshold, Biden officials said.

On Tuesday, Biden also acknowledged his critics, who say he is betraying his campaign promises to end Trump’s immigration crackdowns, and America’s long-standing international commitments to providing safe harbor to people fleeing persecution.

“For those who say the steps I’ve taken are too strict, I say to you, ‘Be patient,’” he added. “Doing nothing is not an option.”

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Mary Beth Sheridan in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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Video: President Biden announced on Tuesday a new plan that will shut off access to the U.S. asylum system when illegal border crossings exceed 2,500.© 2024 , The Washington Post

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