100 days in, Biden has made little progress on helping refugees and asylum seekers

Caitlin Dickson
·8-min read

President Biden entered the White House with an ambitious immigration agenda, promising not only to undo the harmful policies imposed by his predecessor but to completely reform the U.S. immigration system into one that is more efficient, welcoming and humane.

One hundred days later, immigration experts generally agree that Biden has made some notable strides in the right direction but has a lot more work to do in order to deliver on those lofty promises.

“Only focusing on the reversal of some of the harm that Trump inflicted upon immigrants, refugees and border communities is crucial, but it’s not progress,” said Erika Andiola, chief advocacy officer at RAICES, a nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrant and refugee families, in a statement. “Progress and justice for the immigrant community means completely undoing every hurtful policy and going beyond the status quo of the Obama administration and his predecessors.”

Migrants and asylum seekers demonstrate at the San Ysidro crossing port between Tijuana, Mexico and California on March 23, 2021. (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)
Migrants and asylum seekers demonstrate at the San Ysidro crossing between Tijuana, Mexico, and California on March 23. (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)

As a candidate, Biden was particularly critical of the Trump administration’s policies that sought to limit access to protections in the U.S. for asylum seekers and refugees. Upon entering office, he quickly issued a number of executive orders to roll back some of those harshest policies, such as the Migrant Protection Protocols, which forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases were adjudicated in U.S. immigration court. 

But Greg Chen, senior director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said that while Biden has “taken some steps to improve asylum procedures, he has not executed on promises that he made to welcome asylum seekers to the United States, as well as refugees.”

On a call with reporters Thursday, Chen outlined some of the key findings from the association’s newly published review of Biden’s immigration actions during his first 100 days in office. Humanitarian protections, he said, are one of the areas in which the administration has made the least progress, and has even backed away from some of [Biden’s] pledges.”

Asylum-seeking migrants' families ride on an inflatable raft to cross the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico on April 22, 2021 in Roma, Texas. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images)
Asylum-seeking migrant families ride on an inflatable raft to cross the Rio Grande into the United States on April 22. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most blatant example came earlier this month, when the White House announced that Biden would keep the refugee admissions ceiling for fiscal year 2021 at 15,000 — the historically low number set by Donald Trump — instead of raising it to 62,500, as he’d previously promised. The White House walked back the announcement after it drew significant backlash from prominent congressional Democrats. In a statement, White House press secretary Jen Psaki insisted that Biden’s decision had “been the subject of some confusion” and that the president was expected to set a “final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15.”

“For the past few weeks, he has been consulting with his advisers to determine what number of refugees could realistically be admitted to the United States between now and Oct. 1,” read Psaki’s statement. “Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely.”

Psaki also noted that while Trump’s 15,000 cap would remain in place, at least for now, Biden had ordered flights to resume for refugees from key regions that had previously been banned under Trump.

Reporting from the Washington Post and New York Times later revealed that Biden’s reversal on refugees was motivated by concerns over political pressure stemming from the recent surge of migrants, largely from Central America, arriving at the southern border.

“We recognize that there is substantial controversy about an influx of migrants coming in at the southern border,” said Chen. He argued that the controversy is being used “by those resistant to [Biden’s] vision of a more welcoming America ... to impede any kind of reform.”

Whether Biden will commit to carrying out that vision in the face of future political challenges “is going to be a real test of the president's leadership,” said Chen.

File photo taken on March 9, 2021 shows migrants attempting to cross the Rio Bravo river on the border between Mexico and the United States, from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. A large increase in migrants pouring over the U.S. southern border has sparked yet another political fight in Washington.  (David Peinado/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Migrants attempt to cross the Rio Bravo from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to Texas on March 9. (David Peinado/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Chen also pointed to Biden’s continued use of a controversial public health order, known as Title 42, which was first implemented under the Trump administration at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to effectively seal off the southern border to migrants. Unlike Trump, Biden has made unaccompanied migrant children exempt from being expelled at the border under Title 42. But the order is still being used to quickly remove the majority of migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation, including asylum-seeking families with young children.

According to a recent Los Angeles Times analysis of government data, U.S. officials have conducted more than 630,000 expulsions along the U.S.-Mexico border since Title 42 was implemented in March 2020, with roughly 240,000 since Biden was inaugurated in January. Of the expulsions carried out under the current administration, nearly 32,000 were of migrant children and their parents. The Los Angeles Times found that by forcibly sending thousands of vulnerable Central American migrants to some of the most dangerous cities south of the Mexican border, Title 42 is fueling the kidnappings of migrants and the extortion of their relatives in the United States.

The policy has been widely condemned by public health experts as well as immigrant and human rights advocates. Human Rights Watch, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and several Democratic senators, including then-Sen. Kamala Harris, have argued that it violates both U.S. and international asylum laws.

Migrants from Central America, who arrived illegally from Mexico to the US to seek asylum, disembark from an inflatable boat after crossing the Rio Grande river before turning themselves over to border patrol agents at the border city of Roma on March 29, 2021. (Photo by Ed Jones/ AFP via Getty Images)
Migrants from Central America disembark from an inflatable boat after crossing the Rio Grande before turning themselves over to Border Patrol agents on March 29. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

"Significantly fewer families are being allowed to access asylum" under the Biden administration than under Trump, Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel for the American Immigration Council, told members of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation & Operations during a hearing on unaccompanied children at the border this week.

Nonetheless, Biden hasn’t backed away from Title 42, but rather he has pointed to the continued expulsion of most families and single adults amid a surge of migration from Central America to the U.S. as proof that the border is not open, contrary to the claims of both smugglers and Biden’s Republican critics. The White House did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News on Title 42, but administration officials have previously defended its use of the Trump-era policy. On a call with reporters earlier this week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the order is “a public health imperative not only to protect the American public but also to importantly protect the migrants themselves,” and would remain in place until it “is no longer needed.”

On Thursday, BuzzFeed News reported that the Biden administration is considering a plan to offer certain particularly vulnerable migrants a chance to enter the U.S. with a humanitarian exception to the Title 42 policy. The BuzzFeed report notes that under the potential new process, which is still being finalized, “Department of Homeland Security officials are expected to still turn around the vast majority of immigrants at the border.”

President Biden speaks during a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Bloomberg)
President Biden speaks to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. (Melina Mara/Washington Post via Bloomberg)

Biden briefly touched on immigration during his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night. He referenced the effort, led by Vice President Kamala Harris, “to get at the root of the problem of why people are fleeing to our southern border from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador,” and called on members of Congress to pass immigration reform legislation.

But even some of his allies in Congress, such as Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., were disappointed that the president’s speech did not include a specific plan to address the current influx of migrants at the southern border. In an interview with Politico on Thursday, Kelly, who is already facing Republican criticism over the border situation ahead of his reelection bid next year, called for more federal resources for “what I would say is a crisis on the border in Arizona and Texas” and promised to "continue holding this administration accountable.”

Reichlin-Melnick and Jorge Loweree, policy director of the American Immigration Council, released their own report Thursday on the Biden administration’s progress so far on eliminating the Trump-era restrictions to legal immigration, and the significant barriers that remain.

“President Biden's first 100 days were a success in signaling a very different and new way forward on immigration,” Loweree told reporters Thursday. “His next hundred days must be characterized by meaningful action to address the ongoing hardship experienced by immigrants and their families created by Trump's invisible wall."


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