Biden’s record on immigration policy is a mixed bag

Two years later, debates over President Joe Biden’s immigration policy have largely focused on record high levels of migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border, exacerbated by an immigration system that hasn’t been thoroughly overhauled in decades. In this year’s State of the Union address, Biden referred to some of the steps his administration has taken to address those problems, but neglected to mention the many ways it has contributed to the dysfunction.

Last month, Biden announced a new carrot-and-stick immigration framework that would admit tens of thousands of migrants to the US every month and increase deportations for illegal border crossings. David J. Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, told Reason at the time he expected “a significant reduction in illegal crossings by encouraging people to wait for a legal option to become available to them.”

That’s what happened, Biden said tonight: “Since we launched our new border plan last month, illegal migration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela has decreased by 97 percent.” According to CBSillegal border crossings fell 40 percent in January — “the lowest levels of illegal migration along the US-Mexico border since President Biden’s first full month in office in February 2021.”

Biden really deserves credit for realizing that more opportunities for legal immigration means fewer people are forced to migrate illegally. He could have also mentioned, but didn’t, another thing he did well: private sponsorship of the plan aspect allows ordinary citizens to sponsor Nicaraguans, Cubans, Haitians and Venezuelans.

He also neglected to mention the big thing he did wrong. As migrant arrivals surged, Biden sided with Trump-era policies that exacerbated the problem.

His administration supported President Donald Trump’s Title 42 order, which allowed federal immigration officials to immediately deport migrants, ostensibly in the name of stopping COVID-19. Since Title 42 does not carry a penalty for re-entry, re-crossings have increased, artificially increasing the number of repeat encounters. American Immigration Council have noted that from FY 2021 through April 2022, one in three border encounters “was a person making a second or multiple attempts to cross the border.”

Biden’s address called on lawmakers to “come together on immigration and make it a bipartisan issue like it used to be.” And this is where his administration failed. Evacuating Afghans who were cooperating with US troops had about as much bipartisan support as an immigration issue can get today, with 90 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans supporting those efforts, according to an August 2021 CBS/YouGov poll. But the Biden administration waited until the eleventh hour to carry out most of those evacuations, worried about triggering a “crisis of confidence” in the failing Afghan government. Foot dragging cursed thousands of Afghans linked to the US life under Taliban rule.

Biden called on Congress to pass his plan “to provide equipment and officers to secure the border,” as well as “a path to citizenship for DREAMers, temporary status holders, farm workers and basic workers.” He is right about the roads: the legal immigration system was not updated in a significant way for more than 30 years, preventing the US from accepting migrants who work in critical areas. Excessive application arrears they prevented temporary residents from adjusting to permanent status. (Again, Biden it fails take responsibility.)

Yet while the president says he supports “comprehensive immigration reform,” his record paints a murkier picture. “Biden has enacted rules that exclude countless farmers and small businesses from the visa programs they depend on,” notes Sam Peak, an immigration policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity. “Fees and red tape alone cost roughly $10,000 to hire just one farm worker…Biden insists on adding more red tape to these programs and encouraging a black market for illegal immigration.”

“America’s border problems will not be solved until Congress acts,” Biden said tonight. And Congress should indeed pass reforms that tackle the root cause of illegal immigration—namely, the lack of legal migration opportunities. But the president should acknowledge his own role in the chaos at the border and the ways his administration has kept a more functioning immigration system out of reach.

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