Biden’s Immigration Plan Exists on Paper, Not in Reality

The administration has ideas for fixing the country’s migrant influx. Now it needs the courage to implement them.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Joe Biden, flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas (R), meets virtually with Mexican  President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at the White House in Washington on March 1, 2021.
Joe Biden, flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas (R), meets virtually with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at the White House in Washington on March 1, 2021. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Last December, Susan Rice and Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s incoming domestic policy advisor and national security advisor, sat for interviews with reporters along America’s southwest border to explain the president-elect’s bold plans on migration and refugees. They had two messages to convey. The first was that the incoming team had “a transformative vision,” as Rice put it, that encompassed $4 billion in strategic investments in the Central American countries from which migrants were fleeing, broader pathways for legal migration, and reforms to the tangled process of granting asylum at the border.

The second message was that, owing to the collapse of the asylum-processing system under President Donald Trump, the new policy could not be implemented for “months.” This was precisely the explanation the White House offered when Biden announced that he would retain Trump’s historically low refugee cap of 15,000—only to reverse himself under immense pressure a few hours later.

But the original excuse wasn’t true, as both recent reporting and my own conversations with refugee advocates and analysts show. The administration instead was freaked out by a high number of migrants arriving at the border. A Washington Post op-ed, capturing the consensus, feverishly described a “deluge of unaccompanied children” reaching the border, and it put the blame on Biden’s “legendary empathy.” Joe Biden was soft on immigration.

In its first 100 days, the Biden administration has unlocked a door that has been closed to Democrats for half a century. Though it continues to face implacable opposition from congressional Republicans, the administration has found that by doing what is right—at least what it believes to be right—it is doing what the American people want it to do, which is to mobilize its vast resources in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, gross inequality, and long-standing neglect. Biden has been bold without having to be brave. Indeed, the closest analogy to the moment is not the Great Society, for President Lyndon B. Johnson paid a great price for his commitment to civil rights, but the New Deal, which cemented the Democratic Party’s majority status for a generation. People generally like it when you spend money on them.

As I wrote earlier this month, you can understand why Biden would not let refugee policy jeopardize a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild America’s economy on a more just and secure foundation. But Americans have been down this road before. President Barack Obama went to such lengths to placate anti-immigrant sentiment that he earned the derisive sobriquet “deporter-in-chief”; yet all his ugly compromises failed to win the public support he needed for immigration reform.

In recent months, senior Biden officials have gone silent on migration policy. I did not get a response to requests for interviews with three responsible officials. I was able to speak to a fourth official, Ricardo Zúñiga, the special envoy for the Northern Triangle, at a rare press briefing. When I asked about fears that the administration was getting cold feet, he said, “there was enormous strain on the system, and it is taking time to kind of reconstitute an effective system, and, for example, to re-initiate asylum processing at the speed at which we would like to have it.” It was, he added with some delicacy, “a difficult time to be taking on the challenges related to migration.”

It’s always a difficult time; yet the actual policy, as contained in formal documents and policy statements, would transform existing practice on refugees and migration every bit as profoundly as would Biden’s policy on child support or infrastructure. The president’s executive order, issued in February, on migration at the southern border calls for precisely the kind of large-scale but carefully targeted investments in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua that advocates have long been calling for—“combating corruption, strengthening democratic governance, and advancing the rule of law; promoting respect for human rights, labor rights, and a free press,” and so on. Of course, the fact that this is carefully crafted does not mean that it will work as planned. At the press briefing, Zúñiga readily conceded that those governments in Central America had hardly committed themselves to the fight against corruption, and he said that the administration was prepared to impose sanctions on government officials who continue to block reforms.

That is, in any case, the long-term strategy. The immediate need is to find legal pathways for immigration and to make the asylum process “safe, orderly, and humane”—an administration mantra. Officials have vowed to speed up the process of family reunification for minors who reach the United States as well as those who apply from the region. They will also extend seasonal guest worker visas, which now go almost exclusively to Mexico, to citizens of the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These two measures could persuade many would-be migrants not to simply head for the U.S. border.

The White House has signaled that it will overturn a 2018 finding by Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general, that victims of domestic and gang violence do not qualify for asylum, though doing so would greatly increase the number of Central American migrants eligible for refugee status. The Biden plan calls for processing asylum requests either in the migrant’s country of origin or in Mexico. This reform alone would qualify as transformative, as it would preclude the chaos at the border that has been the great cause of public outrage both in the United States and in Europe. Indeed, the whole policy has been crafted with an eye to reducing the political cost of bringing fairness to the system. That said, Mexico will probably not agree to shelter migrants applying for asylum elsewhere, and victims of violence may be understandably reluctant to remain at home for a year or two while American asylum officials decide their case.

In the budget request submitted to Congress, Biden asked for more than $1.2 billion to clear the enormous backlog of pending immigration cases, in part by greatly increasing the number of immigration judges. The administration also asked for an initial $861 million in aid to Central American countries. Separately, the administration has been scrambling to find humane facilities for the unaccompanied children already in the country and for those who continue to arrive.

Unlike in other spheres, like voting rights or climate change, many of the reforms Biden seeks will not require legislative approval. Both the expansion of legal pathways for immigration and the definition of refugee status are within the executive’s purview. The greater problem will be reversing the thousand-odd regulatory rulings passed during Trump’s tenure with the goal of making immigration as difficult as possible. But despite the fury at migrants that Trump stoked—or perhaps in reaction to it—popular opinion on the subject seems to have shifted. The fierce blowback to Biden’s own compromise implies as much. In one recent poll, two-thirds of respondents regarded the situation at the southern border as either a “crisis” or a “very serious situation, but not a crisis,” yet most preferred building “a functioning immigration system to process people in a humane way” to “more border security” and “crackdowns on illegal immigration.” Large majorities favored “keeping families together” and creating pathways to seek asylum from home countries.

Refugee advocates describe the initial rollout of the Biden plan, which many of them had a hand in shaping, in euphoric tones. “It was mind-blowing,” recalled Frank Sharry of America’s Voice. “This guy’s going big; he gets it.” I’ve long known Sharry as a moderate who worries as much about the extortionate demands of the left as the intransigence of the right; in Biden he saw a leader with a perfect instinct for the point of consensus among Democrats—and not, like Obama, between Democrats and allegedly moderate Republicans. Now he worries that Biden has backed off the plate after a brushback pitch.

“They have such an innovative, multidimensional plan, and the fact that they don’t talk about it is ridiculous,” Sharry said. “They’ve been shaken by what’s happening at the border; it wasn’t expected, and it wasn’t really prepared for.” The increase of migrants crossing the border early this year, with its dangerous implications for Biden’s “legendary empathy,” had provided a very sobering reminder of why this issue has been so toxic in the past—and why it requires such care. Biden has chosen not to rescind Trump’s policy of barring the border to all adult migrants as a public health measure during the pandemic, a defensible policy that nevertheless strands thousands of would-be refugees in Mexico or in the Northern Triangle itself.

That may be a prudent pause while the administration reconstitutes a tattered migration system, as Zúñiga put it. But that remains to be proved. “They choked on Friday afternoon,” Sharry said, referring to Biden’s April 16 announcement on refugee caps, “but they came back in hours. Are they going to choke some more, or are they coming back with the big, bold approach they’ve taken on almost every issue?”

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.