Top advisers to President-elect Joe Biden said Tuesday they will not immediately roll back asylum restrictions at the Mexican border and other Trump immigration policies, tamping down expectations for the kind of swift reversals Biden promised on the campaign trail.
Speaking to reporters on a conference call, several members of the Biden transition team said the incoming administration would “need time” to undo “damage” to the U.S. immigration system and border enforcement policies that have severely limited the ability of asylum seekers to qualify for humanitarian protection.
The transition officials echoed statements made by Susan E. Rice, Biden’s incoming domestic policy adviser, and Jake Sullivan, his pick for national security adviser, in an exclusive interview published Monday with the Spanish wire service EFE urging patience with their immigration agenda.
Rice told EFE that Biden will use executive authority to implement his immigration agenda, but her cautious statements appeared to reflect the incoming administration’s worries that easing up too quickly on Trump’s enforcement system could trigger a new migration surge at the border.
“Migrants and asylum seekers absolutely should not believe those in the region peddling the idea that the border will suddenly be fully open to process everyone on Day 1. It will not,” Rice said, according to a translation of the interview transcript.
Immigrant advocacy groups and others who deplore Trump’s policies have pushed Biden to embrace wholesale changes to a U.S. enforcement model designed to deter illegal migration through a system of detention and deportation.
Rice told EFE the new administration would offer a “transformative vision for addressing migration in our region” and would work to build “a fair, humane and orderly immigration system.”
“We will be able to take some steps to change policies right away,” Rice said. “Others will take time to put in place, and the situation at the border will not transform overnight due in large part to the damage done over the last four years. But we are committed to addressing it in full.”
Rice said Biden will not immediately end the practice of rapidly “expelling” migrants to Mexico, measures implemented by the Trump administration in March, citing public health concerns. The measures allow U.S. agents to wave off normal asylum procedures and promptly return most border-crossers to Mexico, an arrangement Homeland Security officials say is needed to prevent further spread of the coronavirus inside border stations and detention centers.
Rice told EFE “processing capacity at the border is not like a light that you can just switch on and off.”
Said Rice: “Our priority is to reopen asylum processing at the border consistent with the capacity to do so safely and to protect public health, especially in the context of COVID-19. This effort will begin immediately, but it will take months to develop the capacity that we will need to reopen fully.”
Similarly, Sullivan told EFE that the administration would not immediately end the Migration Protection Protocols that Biden had promised to terminate on his first day in office. Under those Trump measures, asylum seekers are sent back to Mexico to wait outside U.S. territory — some in squalid tent camps — while their claims are processed in U.S. courts.
“MPP has been a disaster from the start and has led to a humanitarian crisis in northern Mexico,” Sullivan said. “But putting the new policy into practice will take time.”
Rice and Sullivan told EFE that Biden will hold to his commitment to immediately introduce legislation creating a path to citizenship for 11 million people in the United States illegally. Such a proposal will face long odds in a divided Congress.
“We need legislative changes to make enduring repairs to our immigration system, and the president-elect will share his vision with Congress,” Rice said. “He is committed to working collaboratively with members of Congress to achieve the needed reform that has long eluded the country.”
Officials from Biden’s transition team said Tuesday the president-elect will suspend deportations from the U.S. interior while it “sorts out” new policies for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Rice and Sullivan told EFE the Biden administration would redouble efforts to stem emigration from Central America by creating jobs, battling corruption and improving security. Biden “will work to promptly undo” Trump’s deals with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador allowing U.S. authorities to transfer asylum seekers to those countries, Sullivan said.
“As currently written, the outgoing administration’s so-called ‘asylum cooperative agreements’ deny the right to apply for asylum in the United States to desperate asylum seekers rather than helping create alternative pathways to protection,” he said.
The Obama administration also prioritized controlling the border and swiftly deported tens of thousands of migrants seeking work in the United States. As vice president, Biden traveled to Central America as part of a push to foster investment in migrants’ home countries so that they would not feel compelled to leave home.
But dramatically more people are arriving at the border to seek asylum — meaning they feel their lives are at risk in their homelands — posing a new challenge for Biden, because advocates say many of their fears are real.
Trump has alleged that migrants are seeking asylum because it is easier to gain entry into the United States, and his administration has implemented different programs to hold them at bay. Thousands who attempted to cross at legal ports of entry were sent to Mexico and added to waiting lists, a process called “metering” that Biden transition team officials have promised to end.
More than 65,000 others jumped the border and were sent to Mexico under Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols; of these, about 23,000 remain in shelters and camps along the border, according to a new report by Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization that has been tracking conditions on the border.
Officials also have expelled at least 8,800 unaccompanied minors and thousands of adults, many to the nations they fled, under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order barring entry during the pandemic, the report said.
Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher and policy analyst Human Rights First, said migrants in Mexico are struggling to make a living and to protect themselves in high-crime border cities. Human Rights First has tracked at least 1,300 acts of violence against migrants in Mexico, including murder.
“We want them to adopt all the safety measures that are needed,” he said of the Biden administration. “At the same time, there needs to be some sense of urgency. There are a lot of refugees who are in danger in Mexico and who can be processed safely.”
He said many were headed to the United States in part because they have family here who can shelter them.
“It can’t all happen on Day 1,” he said. “But it also shouldn’t wait until June.”
In their statements Monday and Tuesday, Biden officials did not address the incoming administration’s plans for the $15 billion border wall project, but the president-elect said during the campaign he would not build “another foot” of the barrier.