With 5 Months Until Election, Biden Signs Executive Order Tightening Southern Border

President Joe Biden speaks with border patrol agents as he visits the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas, Feb. 29, 2024.
President Joe Biden speaks with border patrol agents as he visits the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas, Feb. 29, 2024. JIM WATSON via Getty Images

WASHINGTON ― President Joe Biden on Tuesday cracked down on illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, potentially defusing one of his weakest political issues heading into November’s election.

The executive order he signed suspends the processing of asylum claims for most migrants encountered along the border between official ports of entry after the daily number of such encounters hits 2,500. The order does not affect people entering at official crossings who have sought permission using the authorized Customs and Border Protection mobile app, and creates exceptions for unaccompanied children, victims of trafficking and people fearing torture.

“Republicans have left me no choice,” Biden said in brief remarks from the White House Tuesday afternoon, blaming congressional Republicans for refusing to pass a bipartisan deal put forward earlier this year. “I’m moving past Republican obstruction and using the executive authorities available to me as president to do what I can on my own to address the border.”

It’s unclear, though, whether Biden’s action will improve his standing with voters who view illegal immigration as a top issue.

“He already has a failing grade from voters on immigration,” said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. “This is akin to closing the barn door after the horses have already gone out. Too little, too late.”

It’s also unclear whether Biden has the legal authority to impose such rules by executive order alone, rather than through legislation approved by Congress. Advocates for migrants are promising legal action to block enforcement of the order ― just as they successfully did when former President Donald Trump tried to take similar but far more drastic action on his own. The American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday it would sue.

Seeking asylum under threat of violence or persecution is a right under international law and is codified in U.S. law. But the large number of migrants who have been entering the United States after Biden undid many of the anti-immigration policies adopted by Trump has alarmed even many Democrats. Critics argue that people coming primarily for economic reasons are simply claiming asylum because they understand that the legal process to adjudicate their claim would take years, during which time they could live and work in the United States.

Earlier this year, Biden’s staff helped negotiate bipartisan legislation supported by a number of Senate Republicans that would have applied stricter rules for claiming asylum, as well as increased funding for Border Patrol staff and other enforcement agencies.

That compromise bill, though, stalled indefinitely after Trump instructed congressional Republicans not to pass it because it would help Biden’s reelection effort as Trump tries to win the White House back.

“Why? Because Donald Trump told them to,” Biden said Tuesday. “It was an extremely cynical political move.”

Trump, who attempted a coup to remain in power after losing to Biden in 2020 and is now a convicted felon on charges based on his actions ahead of the 2016 election, has long been attacking Biden on immigration.

On Tuesday, just minutes before Biden spoke, Trump’s campaign staged a call for reporters with his immigration advisers.

“This is a pro-invasion executive order,” said Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s policy to separate children from their parents at the border as a way to deter families from trying to come.

“The only reason they’re doing this is because of the election,” said Tom Homan, who was acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Trump. “We handed him the most secure border in my 34-year career, and he unsecured it on purpose.”

Biden in his remarks attacked Trump’s tactics and generally anti-immigrant policies.

“I believe immigration has always been the lifeblood of America. We’re constantly renewed by an infusion of people and new talent. The Statue of Liberty is not some relic of American history,” he said. “I will never demonize immigrants. I will never refer to immigrants as ‘poisoning the blood of our country.’ I will never separate children from their families at the border. I will not ban people because of their religious beliefs.”

But Biden said that the flow of migrants had to be controlled because the country’s capacity to absorb them is not infinite.

“The simple truth is, there is a worldwide migrant crisis,” he said. “If the United States doesn’t secure our border, there is no limit to the number of people who might try to come here, because there’s no better place on the planet than the United States of America.”