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“Why now?”: Biden’s new immigration policy to limit asylum seekers faces quick criticism in Texas

A child touches the razor wire at the border wall between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico on June 19, 2021.
Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune
A child touches the razor wire at the border wall between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico on June 19, 2021.

A new plan from President Joe Biden to temporarily stop granting asylum to migrants if illegal crossings pass a certain threshold was met Tuesday with condemnation in Texas from elected officials of both parties, while concern spread among groups that advocate for migrant's rights about the immediate danger it will present to an already vulnerable population.

The proclamation signed Tuesday by Biden will largely suspend entry of noncitizens into the country beginning 12:01 a.m. Eastern Wednesday, according to the order. Exceptions include permanent U.S. residents and unaccompanied children.

The limitations are to be discontinued two weeks after there has been an average of less than 1,500 migrant encounters between official ports of entry for seven consecutive days. The restrictions would resume when there has been an average of 2,500 encounters or more for seven consecutive days.

Biden said he did “what I can on my own to address the border” because Republicans in Congress failed to take up a bipartisan border security deal brokered in the Senate earlier this year. That deal fell apart after former President Donald Trump denounced it as not going far enough. Democrats said Trump was cynically killing the legislation to keep migration a problem Trump could campaign on.

"The border is not a political issue to be weaponized. It's a responsibility we have to share and do something about," Biden said from the White House. "Today I'm announcing actions to bar migrants who cross our southern border unlawfully from seeking asylum."

In Texas, migrant advocacy and civil rights groups blasted the order, which they said resembles failed policies of past administrations and will put many migrants at risk of violence as they wait on the Mexican side of the southern border to secure an asylum appointment with U.S. officials following already-treacherous journeys north.

Those who have such appointments will also be excluded from the proclamation. However, advocates say scheduling an appointment requires navigating a technical web of processes that even lawyers sometimes struggle with and that a phone application used to make appointments is flawed and already overwhelmed. For instance, asylum-seekers in Reynosa and Matamoros are currently waiting eight to ten months for their appointments, one nonprofit noted.

"You're really seeing incredible dismantling and restrictions imposed on accessing asylum," said Karla Marisol Vargas, a senior lawyer for the Beyond Borders Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project. "In practice what this means is trying to even ask for asylum or ask for any of these protections is going to be well-near impossible."

Joining Biden in the East Room of the White House for an announcement of the order was a coalition of Texas Democrats that included the mayors of San Antonio and some border cities like Brownsville, as well as Texas U.S. Reps. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, and Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser defended the timing of Biden's order, saying his city was at a “breaking point” last year trying to shelter record numbers of migrants. He said Biden was right to first pursue legislative fixes through Congress, which is the only body that can allocate the funds needed to address the issue.

“That executive order right now, it's only the beginning to help us be able to cope,” Leeser said following Biden's remarks. “This isn't going to fix it all … We still need to have a bipartisan agreement.”

Separately, U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, a Dallas Democrat running for Senate, issued a statement of support for the measure.

“Our border communities need more than talking points and photo ops, they need action,” Allred said in the statement. “And while I have been critical of this administration’s approach to the border, if it is implemented correctly this executive order could bring long overdue relief to our border communities."

But approval of the policy was not widespread among Texas Democrats, some of whom denounced it.

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat, said the order's threshold would "amount to a functional ban on asylum" for many who are fleeing persecution and violence.

"The United States of America became the strongest, most prosperous nation on earth because of — not despite — immigration," Castro said in a statement. "President Biden has worked hard to build a better future for America and has succeeded remarkably across many areas of public policy – making historic progress to lower health care costs, launch a new age of American manufacturing and create millions of well-paying jobs. But this executive order is the wrong approach and goes too far."

In Eagle Pass, Mayor Rolando Salinas, who wasn't invited to join Biden for the announcement Tuesday, questioned why the president did not take executive action last year amid record migration in the city or in response to Salinas’ pleas to the federal government for help.

“If he could have done this all along why didn’t he do this last year when our city got slammed — they closed the bridge, businesses were hurting, our first responders were struggling,” Salinas said Tuesday morning. “Why now?”

Gov. Greg Abbott said the president took action now because he's in a heated reelection battle against Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.

"Since his first day in office, President Biden dismantled all of his predecessor’s successful border policies, encouraging millions of illegal immigrants — including dangerous criminals and terrorists — into our country," Abbott said in a statement. "For three years, the President has lied about the existence of the border crisis, deflected blame to Congress, and now contradicts himself by issuing a feckless executive order months before Election Day."

Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Sen. Ted Cruz, both Republicans, also rebuked the executive order as a political move during an election year. They both voted against a bill earlier this year that included similar measures, saying it would not have done enough.

“It’s a fig leaf. He has absolutely no intention of actually enforcing any of this. If he did, he would have enforced the law — as we’ve heard time and time again — at the beginning of his administration,” Cornyn said. “This is not an improvement. This is a fig leaf and I think the American people are not going to be fooled.”

Biden's proclamation leans on Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act that lets a president limit entry of specific migrants if it is "detrimental" to national interest. Trump used the same provisions with his 2017 banning of people from Muslim-majority countries and a later policy barring asylum seekers that was ultimately struck down by courts.

Biden administration officials insist the new proposal is very different, but that will likely do little to prevent expected lawsuits to stop it. The American Civil Liberties Union vowed to challenge the order in court. "It was illegal when Trump did it, and it is no less illegal now," said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the organization's Immigrants’ Rights Project.

“By accelerating the criminalization of individuals pursuing the long-established legal and human right to seek asylum in the U.S., President Biden is fueling a sociopolitical climate aggressively hostile towards all immigrant, refugee and asylum-seeking people and families," said Faisal Al-Juburi of RAICES, a San Antonio nonprofit that provides free and low-cost legal services for migrants. "I wish I could say that the humanitarian consequences would be unfathomable, but we can in fact fathom them — because we’ve seen them time and again."

To others, the order was the latest manifestation of high-tension politics during a presidential election year — one that could bring severe ramifications.

"It shows that political tactics in a pivotal election year supersede fair, compassionate and effective immigration reform," said Christine Bolaños of Workers Defense Project, an Austin organization that advocates for the state's low-wage, immigrant workers in the construction industry. "At a time when migrants in Texas face a constant barrage of anti-immigrant legislation and narrative meant to position them as political scapegoats and distract from the attacks on our freedom, we need a president who is willing to work with the immigrant movement to address this humanitarian crisis in a dignified and fair way."

Jennifer Babaie of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that provides legal services to migrants in West Texas and Mexico, said she was concerned about what the order could portend for migrants while not creating safer, legal options for migrating.

“There’s going to be a lot of confusion among people about how to enter. I think we’re going to see more people forced into trafficking routes,” Babaie said. “It’s just danger to women, children and the LGBTQ community that we serve. I mean those are the number one groups of people that we’re screening in [Ciudad] Juárez, many have been waiting for months [to enter the U.S.].”

Berenice Garcia contributed to this story.


From the Texas Tribune