As a presidential candidate last year, Joe Biden slammed the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies and pledged to enact comprehensive reform that would reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees. As Biden’s first year in the White House ends, his record on immigration demonstrates as much continuity as change.
In perhaps his most visible departure from the previous administration, President Biden ordered a halt to wall construction along the U.S.-Mexico border shortly after taking office.
But much of the immigration policy architecture of the Trump years endures. The Biden administration has retained Title 42, a pandemic-related policy mandating the rapid expulsion of migrants as a public health precaution, even as America opened its land borders to Mexico and Canada. And a federal court order forced reinstatement of the former administration’s policy that kept asylum seekers on the Mexican side of the border while awaiting U.S. immigration court dates, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).
Immigrant advocates say Biden has added some humanity to America’s immigration system but credit him with little else.
"We asked this administration to [end] MPP, Title 42, to release children and families in detention and to start changing not only the narrative but to have a more proactive strategy to rebuild the asylum process at the border,” Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso, Texas, told VOA. “But in practice, we can still see some of the kind of legacy of Trump at the border. That has not changed and we're disappointed that that is still happening.”
US-Mexico border and asylum seekers
In addition to ending border wall construction—former President Donald Trump’s signature project—Biden did, in fact, order MPP halted soon after his January inauguration.
Texas, a Republican-led U.S. state bordering Mexico, sued the Biden administration to keep the policy in place. In August, a federal judge ruled that the Biden administration had improperly ended the policy and ordered it reinstated.
“I fought to protect our southern border and won,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement at the time. “I will not allow the safety of Texas residents to be left to the mercy of a reckless president.”
While appealing the ruling, the Biden administration reimplemented the policy on December 6, after Mexico agreed to receive returned migrants.
While the White House has sought to end MPP, the same cannot be said of Title 42, which the Biden administration opted to retain from the start.
Since March 20, 2020, hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking to apply for asylum in the United States have been expelled to their home countries. Implemented and enforced as a blanket policy by the Trump administration, Title 42 has been modified under Biden to allow for humanitarian exemptions such as unaccompanied minors and families with young children.
Migration Policy Institute analyst Jessica Bolter said retaining the policy has had “the largest effect on people arriving at the border.” She added, “Of course, we now also have MPP added to that mix.”
During Trump’s four years in office, the annual ceiling for U.S. refugee admissions was slashed from 85,000 to 15,000.
Biden initially kept the refugee cap at 15,000, the lowest in modern U.S. history, prompting outcries from Democratic allies on Capitol Hill. In May, the administration reversed course and raised the ceiling to 62,500. (U.S. refugee admissions totaled just 11,411 for the 2021 fiscal year, which ended September 30.)
The administration has since raised the 2022 refugee cap to 125,000. Yet actual admissions continue to lag and the White House has admitted that the “goal [of 125,000 admissions] will be hard to hit” despite Biden’s determination to “rebuild” the program and renew “America’s commitment to protect the most vulnerable, and to stand as a beacon of liberty and refuge to the world.”
While record-setting migration to the U.S.-Mexico border has gotten the most attention during Biden’s first year in office, researchers say little has changed in the way of federal border enforcement.
According to Bolter, the “really dramatic changes” are seen in interior enforcement and how the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) has reprioritized arrests to focus on undocumented immigrants who pose a threat to national security or public safety. During the Trump administration, any immigrant living in the U.S. without authorization could be subject to arrest and removal.
“These are changes that are affecting how the immigrant population in the U.S. lives their day-to-day life,” Bolter said. “The Biden administration has put into place new ICE enforcement priorities that narrow the population who are targeted for arrest or removal. This makes the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants who are living in the U.S. deprioritized for enforcement.”
The Biden administration has also acted to prevent ICE from making arrests at courthouses and limited the detention of pregnant women.
“And probably one of the most significant steps that they've taken in the enforcement arena is ending mass worksite enforcement operations,” Bolter added.
After more than a year of closures, U.S. embassies and consulates around the world have reopened for immigrant and nonimmigrant visa appointments. Yet, due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, such services remain limited.
In November, the State Department announced that more than 460,000 people are awaiting interviews, adding to an extensive backlog of those seeking to apply for U.S. legal residency and other categories.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for America’s naturalization system, has made changes under Biden.
The agency replaced the word “alien”—seen by some as pejorative—with “noncitizen” or “undocumented noncitizen” in its publications and pledged to make immigration forms “more accurate, timely, and easier to understand.”
Immigration legislation stalled
On his first day in office, President Biden unveiled sweeping immigration reform legislation, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which included an 8-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
The bill has yet to be voted on by either the House or Senate and is viewed as all but dead on Capitol Hill.
Separately, Senate Democrats have repeatedly sought to add immigration reform elements to a massive social safety net spending bill. In each instance, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that immigration measures do not belong in spending bills that can pass the chamber with a simple majority vote.
As a result, immigration reform legislation will need three-fifth majority backing to advance in the 100-member Senate where Democratic caucus has only 50 members and Republicans are united in opposition to Democrats’ reform proposals.
Given that Democrats control both elected branches of the U.S. government, Washington’s inability to reform America’s oft-criticized immigration system is a bitter pill for advocates.
“Our hope, our demand and our expectation were that this new administration was bringing a new air in regard to immigrants and immigration policy with a more humane approach to immigration, and we did believe that,” Garcia, from Border Network for Human Rights, told VOA.
While immigration advocates are disappointed the Biden administration has not done more to turn from Trump policies, Republicans blame the president for a protracted migrant surge at the border, saying his messaging led people in Central America and elsewhere to believe U.S. borders were open to newcomers.