Washington — Less than two weeks after he took office and halted border wall construction, announced a deportation pause and suspended a rule requiring migrants to await their court dates in Mexico, President Biden issued an executive order signaling a dramatic shift in U.S. immigration policy.
His administration, Mr. Biden promised in that February 2021 order, would “restore and strengthen” the U.S. asylum system and reject the Trump administration’s border policies that “contravened our values and caused needless human suffering.”
Nearly three years into his tenure, Mr. Biden now finds himself entertaining drastic and permanent restrictions on asylum — including an extraordinary authority first invoked by former President Donald Trump to summarily expel migrants during spikes in illegal crossings — in order to convince congressional Republicans to support more military aid to Ukraine.
In many ways, the president’s willingness to support strict border policies similar to those employed by his predecessor — and loathed by progressives and human rights advocates — reflects a seismic shift in the politics of immigration over the past several years.
It’s a shift fueled by a convergence of factors. Record levels of migrant apprehensions along the southern border have strained federal and local resources. Democratic-led cities like New York and Chicago have struggled to house new arrivals, with local officials loudly voicing their concerns about overwhelmed services. Public polling shows a majority of Americans view Mr. Biden’s immigration agenda unfavorably.
A CBS News poll released this week found that immigration and the border rank as the second-most important issues facing the country, just behind worries about inflation and ahead of concerns over the future of American democracy.
The White House has conceded it’s going to have to compromise away some of its positions on immigration policy. “We have to find a bipartisan compromise — that’s what the president said; that’s what the president believes — in order to deal with this issue,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week.
Senate immigration talks
The administration’s increased engagement in talks in the Senate, and its openness to sweepingborder changes, have been welcomed by Republican negotiators, who have described significant progress in the negotiations in the past two days. Senators are trying to find agreement on a roughly $100 billion emergency funding package that includes billions of dollars in foreign aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.
But the talks have also created rifts among Democrats, with progressives expressing concerns that Mr. Biden is prepared to give Republicans major concessions without getting any of the long-standing Democratic legislative priorities on immigration — such as granting legal status to so-called “Dreamers” and other undocumented immigrants.
“They have rejected their own party’s solutions on border security and are now adopting Trump’s,” Andrea Flores, a former immigration official in the Biden White House, told CBS News. “The Administration should resist those pushing this bad policy and politics.”
Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, said, “It would be a dire mistake for the Democrats to accept Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.” Moreover, Castro told CBS News, “It would set a dangerous precedent to tie immigration policy to foreign aid funding.”
The Senate negotiations have appeared to blindside Latino Democrats on Capitol Hill, a group that has grown in numbers in recent years, but still lacks lawmakers senior enough to oversee negotiations over appropriations, budget or homeland security matters. Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey has served in Congress the longest, but is persona non grata at the White House given the federal bribery charges he’s facing.
He didn’t hold back this week. “Not a single member, not one of the House or Senate Congressional Hispanic Caucus is at the table for these talks,” he said Wednesday, adding later: “That is a hard slap in the face to all the Latino communities we represent.”
Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat of California, said returning to Trump-era immigration policy “isn’t the fix. It’ll make the problem worse. Mass detention. Gutting asylum system. Title 42 on steroids. It’s unconscionable. That’s not the way to fix the immigration system. We know it won’t work.”
Responding to the criticism of Latino lawmakers on Thursday, Jean-Pierre assured reporters the White House had finally briefed them. “We’ve heard their concerns. We’ve had conversations. We’ve been in regular touch,” she said.
But Rep. Nanette Barragán, a California Democrat and the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, pushed back on that notion, telling CBS News on Thursday that she had received one call earlier in the week from a “senior White House official” whom she declined to name.
“No briefing has been given. They mostly listened. They didn’t consult on the reported offers on the table,” Barragán said. “They continue to leave CHC and our senators out of any negotiations.”
Cecilia Muñoz, former President Barack Obama’s top immigration aide, argued that the Biden administration “is looking for the tools that it can best use to balance the need to protect people fleeing danger and the need for an orderly process at the border.”
Muñoz pushed back on the notion that the border authorities that Mr. Biden is seeking would be used in a similar way to how Trump employed them.
“There is no question that a future Trump administration will use whatever tools they have — and perhaps some that they don’t legally have — in ways that are destructive and inhumane,” Muñoz said. But, she added, there “should be no confusion” about how Mr. Biden would use these authorities differently.