President-elect Joe Biden’s top advisers say the incoming administration will “need time” to undo what they regard as damaging U.S. immigration and border enforcement policies implemented under President Donald Trump.
In an interview with Spanish wire service EFE this week, Susan Rice, Biden’s incoming domestic policy adviser, and Jake Sullivan, his pick for national security adviser, said U.S. border policies the Trump administration put in place to deter mass migration will not disappear overnight.
“We will be able to take some steps to change policies right away. Others will take time to put in place, and the situation at the border will not transform overnight, due in large part to the damage done over the last four years. But we are committed to addressing it in full,” Rice said.
Speaking with reporters in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday, Biden said he had already discussed immigration issues with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and other Latin American leaders. He promised “a much more humane policy” but said “it’s probably going to take the next six months to put that in place.”
Biden added, “The last thing we need is to say we’re going to stop immediately the access to asylum the way it’s being run now, and then end up with 2 million people on our border.”
Trump’s border policies include the Remain in Mexico program that has forced tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to await U.S. immigration court dates on the Mexican side of the southern U.S. border. Strongly criticized by immigrant rights advocates as causing misery and putting migrants’ lives at risk, the program has been defended by the Trump administration, which argues it prevents overcrowding in U.S. detention facilities and reduces the impetus for migrants to take a perilous journey northward.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, to remain in place pending the outcome of legal challenges that would be moot if the incoming Biden administration terminates the program.
In a recent call to reporters, Biden’s transition team said U.S. immigration officials would start processing asylum claims at ports of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border and work toward an “efficient" and "humane" asylum system.
Overall, the Biden team’s postelection comments suggest an effort to tamp down expectations for immediate immigration policy changes after Biden is inaugurated on January 20.
After Rice and Sullivan’s EFE interview, Kids in Need of Defense President Wendy Young said “work should start on day one” and urged the new administration to elevate protections for unaccompanied children and families that exist in U.S. law.
“The incoming Biden administration is right to focus on procedures and policies that will restore vital asylum screening procedures at the U.S.-Mexico border and reflect our nation’s long-held humanitarian approach to protecting the most vulnerable among us,” Young said in a statement.
Elusive legislative solutions
Despite the urgings of both the former George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, Congress has repeatedly been deadlocked on comprehensive immigration reform legislation. The inaction has prompted successive White House occupants to adjust U.S. policy on a piecemeal basis through directives and executive orders, from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, to MPP.
Sullivan and Rice told EFE that Biden would use executive action when feasible.
“There are areas that can be addressed administratively, and the president-elect has plans to begin tackling those areas right away,” Rice said. “But the Biden administration will not be able to fix everything on our own. We need legislative changes to make enduring repairs to our immigration system.”
Analysts remain pessimistic about the chances for enacting sweeping legislation if Biden presides over a politically divided government. Dany Bahar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote that it would be nearly impossible to pass immigration reform if the Senate remains in control of Republicans.