Biden angers both left and right with new immigration policy

Migrants stand in line along a metal barricade.
Migrants from Venezuela wait in line to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents in El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 4. (Paul Ratje/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — The reviews were in, and they were harsh: President Biden’s plan to provide “parole” to some asylum seekers, critics said, was an abdication of executive responsibility and an affront to American ideals.

Only there was a twist to the usual Washington partisanship. This time, the criticism was not coming from the president’s entrenched conservative opposition.

President Biden announced last week that up to 30,000 asylum seekers a month from four nations — Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti — could be granted “parole” to live and work in the United States for two years, provided they did not travel to the border with Mexico first. Now the detractors were progressives — advocates, activists, legislators — who usually side with the White House on policy matters.

With his own announcement about a reelection run in 2024 looming and a Republican-controlled House looking to launch investigations into his approach to immigration, Biden has embarked on a perilous middle path that seeks to show he takes the border crisis seriously. He visited El Paso, Texas, earlier this week, his first trip to the frontlines of the crisis — but remains committed to the progressive vision he espoused as a candidate.

So far, that middle path has been fraught, failing to satisfy allies or pacify opponents.

A woman from Cuba waits in line in the dark of night with other migrants.
A woman from Cuba seeking asylum waits with other migrants to be processed after crossing the border near Yuma, Ariz., on Jan. 6. (Gregory Bull/AP)

The new plan is an effort to stem illegal crossings by incentivizing asylum seekers to apply from their home countries. To do so, they need to be able to access a new smartphone app, submit to a background check and find a sponsor in the United States.

For immigration advocates, the process and monthly cap are onerous and inhumane. Many believe that seeking asylum at the border — as hundreds of thousands of migrants have done each month — is a human right.

The administration is “illegally and immorally gutting access to humanitarian protections for the majority of people who have already fled their country seeking freedom and safety,” said International Refugee Assistance Project policy director Sunil Varghese, echoing a charge made by many other groups advocating for fewer immigration restrictions.

Administration officials have strenuously denied such accusations. “The Biden administration is creating safe and orderly pathways for people who want to seek asylum in the United States,” an administration official told Yahoo News.

Migrants at a Border Patrol station in Marathon, Fla.
Migrants at a Border Patrol station in Marathon, Fla., on Jan. 4. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

The White House knew that whatever it did — or didn’t do — to address the influx of migrants to the border, attacks from anti-immigration Republicans would come hard and fast. Indeed, that was the case.

Stephen Miller, who devised a travel ban from majority-Muslim countries during the first days of the Trump administration in 2017, blasted Biden for what he described as a “tyrannical usurpation of our democracy.” If the charge seems hyperbolic, it was nevertheless echoed by many other conservatives and Republicans.

With the GOP now in control of the House, partisan investigations of how Biden and his homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, have allegedly failed to enforce existing immigration laws are bound to consume the lower congressional chamber for the next two years.

The reaction of Democrats has been arguably more surprising, since it comes after a stretch during which Biden seemed to bank a considerable amount of goodwill with his own party by passing legislation on issues like gun control and climate change that virtually all factions of the party supported.

On immigration, a consensus is much more difficult to find.

Venezuelan migrants Juan Tovar and his 7-year-old daughter, Arianny Tovar, walk near Sacred Heart Church in El Paso, Texas.
Venezuelan migrants Juan Tovar and his 7-year-old daughter Arianny in El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 7. (Andres Leighton/AP)

In a statement sent hours after the president’s announcement, four Democratic senators who are usually White House allies — Alex Padilla of California, Bob Menendez and Cory Booker of New Jersey and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico — denounced the new plan because it would, as they put it in a press release, “exclude thousands of migrants fleeing violence and persecution who do not have the ability or economic means to qualify for the new parole process.”

The reaction to Biden’s plan was a case study in how political polarization can lead to starkly different perceptions of reality.

For the anti-immigration right, almost all asylum seekers are viewed with harsh skepticism, especially when they are regarded as no different from migrants who arrive at the southern border without credible asylum claims. The Federation for American Immigration Reform — which wants significant curbs to both legal and illegal immigration — said the new parole plan amounts to “one of the most egregious and unlawful abuses of humanitarian parole authority in the history of our nation.”

For the pro-immigration left, Biden’s plan smacks of the Trump-era restrictions he had denounced while campaigning for the White House. “It is U.S. law that people can apply for asylum, regardless of their nationality or manner of entry,” said Women’s Refugee Commission senior policy adviser Savitri Arvey. “We urge the Biden administration to uphold the right to seek asylum, not expand Trump-era anti-asylum policies,” her statement said.

A particularly sore point for immigration advocates is that the new parole policy continues to rely on Title 42, a World War II-era public health statute that allows for the swift expulsion of migrants who are caught crossing into the U.S. without proper authorization. The Biden administration has challenged Title 42 but continues to use it for now, including to send 30,000 migrants to Mexico each month under the new parole plan.

Protesters hold signs during a march to demand an end to the immigration policy known as Title 42..
Protesters at a march in El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 7 to demand an end to the immigration policy known as Title 42. (Paul Ratje/Reuters)

Advocates, however, say the Biden administration is not merely continuing to use Title 42 but actually expanding its scope to deport more people.

“We are required by court orders to implement Title 42,” the administration official told Yahoo News. “The administration is challenging those orders in court, but must still comply with the existing court order in the meantime.” (Eventually, the administration expects to deport migrants under Title 8, a preexisting immigration statute.)

Advocates have also criticized a new Department of Homeland Security proposed rule that would make migrants ineligible for asylum in the United States if they travel to the U.S.-Mexico border without first seeking asylum in another country through which they passed along the way.

For immigration supporters for whom seeking asylum at the border is a sacrosanct right — one, they point out, that is enshrined in law — the proposed new DHS rule is especially galling, since it will penalize the very process by which asylum is sought.

The administration official said the rule was being misinterpreted and that it is “not an asylum ban. It’s a safe, orderly, and humane process for seeking asylum.” He also added that the rulemaking process would give advocates and others plenty of opportunities to offer amendments to the DHS proposal.

Sergio Moreno and another migrant from Cuba look on, on the day that President Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit El Paso, Texas.
Sergio Moreno and another migrant from Cuba look on, on the day that President Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit El Paso, Texas. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

To be sure, not everyone has denounced the new Biden plan. “Increasing the use of humanitarian parole will help contribute to a more orderly process at the border, as will expanded legal alternatives for those seeking humanitarian protection,” said National Immigration Forum president Jennie Murray.

In unveiling the new program, Biden blamed Congress for its many years of inaction on immigration reform. Without the partnership of Capitol Hill, there is little, if anything, the White House can do to fix a system that most Americans — regardless of their ideological affiliation — acknowledge is profoundly broken.

Ultimately, the widespread frustration with the parole plan may reflect the near-universal yearning, from progressives and conservatives alike, for more sweeping reforms. Even supporters of the new plan acknowledge that it is offering only limited relief. Still, they say, such relief is necessary as thousands of migrants seek entry into the United States every day.

“I do know some people at the border, their communities are bearing a lot of the brunt of this refugee crisis,” Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., told the Hill. “And so they’re looking for some solutions, so they may be more open to those solutions than others.”

An earlier version of this article misattributed a statement by Women's Refugee Commission senior policy adviser Savitri Arvey to the group's external communications senior director, Joanna Kuebler.