Biden pulls from Trump’s immigration playbook in election-year twist

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President Joe Biden is pulling from former President Donald Trump’s immigration playbook as he tries to stop a flow of asylum-seekers from around the world who are crossing into the US at the border with Mexico.

Unveiled at the White House on Tuesday, Biden’s new plan to all but shut down the US border to asylum-seekers who cross the border illegally uses executive authority Trump once used to bar people from mostly-Muslim countries from entering the US in 2017 and also to bar most asylum-seekers in 2018 – days after Republicans suffered huge setbacks in midterm elections that year.

It’s an odd, election-year twist, since Biden actually ran his 2020 campaign in part on a promise to revoke those actions, which he did in the months after taking office. Trump’s asylum policy was also blocked by federal courts before Biden revoked it.

In addition to slowing the flow of asylum-seekers, Biden’s action could have the political effect of chipping away at Trump’s lead on the immigration issue and triangulating some middle-ground support, even if it leaves progressives angry.

Read the full story on Biden’s announcement from CNN’s White House team.

Trump and Biden remain very far apart

It’s still very true that their rhetoric on immigrants remains very different. Biden expresses openness to immigrants as an important segment of American society. He wants to protect the children of undocumented immigrants who have grown up in the US and to create a pathway to citizenship for those already here.

Trump routinely employs over-the-top rhetoric to demonize migrants and asylum-seekers as being from a criminal class or part of a coordinated invasion of the US, although there’s no evidence to support those claims. Trump has promised a militaristic approach to the border and a massive deportation program if he’s elected in November.

Former President Donald Trump visits the US-Mexico border at Eagle Pass, Texas, as seen from Piedras Negras, Mexico, on February 29.  - Go Nakamura/Reuters
Former President Donald Trump visits the US-Mexico border at Eagle Pass, Texas, as seen from Piedras Negras, Mexico, on February 29. - Go Nakamura/Reuters

Biden, meanwhile, has been pivoting to the middle on immigration all year. The decision to invoke executive authority comes months after a bipartisan border proposal in Congress failed to yield a new permanent law to reform the asylum process. Republican lawmakers, bowing to Trump, refused to work with the White House. Trump had said he wanted to run on the issue of immigration in this election year.

Announcing the new action at the White House, Biden said he was trying “to do what the Republicans in Congress refused to do.”

Even if he’s adopting the authority behind Trump’s policy, he promised not to adopt Trump’s rhetoric.

“I’ll never refer to immigrants as poisoning the blood of a country,” Biden said at the White House.

Biden argued that exceptions in his action make it more humane than Trump’s proposals. Asylum-seekers can still try to make an appointment with border officials and seek asylum at a port of entry.

Expect challenges

The American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged Trump’s border actions when he was president, now plans to challenge Biden.

“It was illegal when Trump did it, and it is no less illegal now,” Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement.

But today’s Supreme Court, which has a majority of conservative appointees, could be more friendly to Biden’s action.

Border crossings are actually down

CNN’s Rosa Flores reported from Hidalgo, Texas, on Tuesday and noted the decline in crossings. Whereas last December, there were around 250,000 border apprehensions, figures in recent months are less than 140,000, and Flores reported the figures dropped even further in May.

The Biden plan would bar migrants who cross the border illegally from seeking asylum once a daily threshold is met, with some exemptions. The measure would stay in place until encounters drop below an average of 1,500 per day.

A drone view shows the US-Mexico border wall in Jacumba Hot Springs, California, on June 3. - Go Nakamura/Reuters
A drone view shows the US-Mexico border wall in Jacumba Hot Springs, California, on June 3. - Go Nakamura/Reuters

Officials in Hidalgo County told Flores that any measures to address the influx of asylum-seekers would need to take into account the cross-border traffic that generates economic activity in the area.

A top official in Hidalgo County, Judge Richard Cortez, told Flores that Biden’s action, while welcome, was a “Band-Aid” and not a permanent solution.

“Comprehensive immigration reform remains the sole solution and Congress remains the sole venue to achieve this reform,” Cortez said in a statement to Flores.

Flores described her interviews with women who became victims of sexual violence while waiting on the Mexico side of the border for asylum claims to be processed and pointed to the vulnerable position today’s action could force migrants into if they wait on the Mexico side of the border.

Why now?

CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez, reporting from the White House, said part of the administration’s calculus had been to wait until after Mexico’s presidential election, which took place over the weekend, to announce this new action. Americans’ ability to cut border crossings will rest, she said, in part on Mexico’s ability to stop the flow of asylum-seekers within its borders.

“We continue to work closely with our Mexican neighbors instead of attacking Mexico,” Biden said at the White House, drawing a distinction between his approach and Trump’s. Biden said he spoke with Mexico’s president-elect on Monday.

Trump holds an advantage on immigration

CNN’s Harry Enten notes that in the years since the Covid-19 pandemic, immigration has taken on increasing importance in the minds of voters.

Troubling for Biden is that Trump is favored by 27 percentage points on the issue, according to polling from CNBC.

Watch more from Enten:

Long-standing authority

Presidents have been using the authority to act on the border for decades; it is based in a 1950s immigration law. Here’s the specific language:

Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.

The authority has routinely been used, according to the Congressional Research Service, by all recent presidents to restrict entry to the US for specific groups of people, like Europeans at one point during the Covid-19 pandemic, suspected terrorists or officials from countries like Iran.

A fact sheet released by the Department of Homeland Security outlines the specific changes in how noncitizens will be processed at the border. People apprehended and slated for expedited removal would need to express fear of returning to their home country in order to be interviewed about their situation. Otherwise, they will quickly be returned to either Mexico or their home country.

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