WASHINGTON – A year into his term, President Joe Biden is taking heat from all sides of the immigration debate.
Immigration advocates feel betrayed and frustrated, saying Biden has embraced or even augmented some of the Trump administration's most extreme policies, despite promises to reverse his predecessor's hard-line approach to the issue.
Conservatives seeking to limit immigration, including former President Donald Trump's allies, are equally blistering. They say Biden's approach to the hot-button issue has fueled new waves of illegal immigration at the border.
The anger over Biden's handling of immigration could have major political consequences for Democrats as they head into the 2022 midterm elections. Republicans have signaled plans to attack Biden on immigration as they seek to regain control of the House and Senate. Democrats are already struggling to court Hispanic voters, and the failure to deliver on immigration could make their political pitch an even tougher sell.
“There's a pretty brutal crosscurrent that every administration faces when it comes to border security,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group.
But Biden came into office with "really high expectations" to revamp the immigration system, he said, and yet the White House has been vexed by border issues.
It may get even worse, Noorani and others fear.
“The inability of the Biden administration to meaningfully roll back Trump-era policies has now made it so that we're in danger of those policies becoming permanent,” said Conchita Cruz, co-executive director for Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project.
Plus, Biden's opportunity to pass immigration reform, which he once cited as a priority, will be significantly diminished if Democrats suffer big losses in Congress come November.
During his news conference last week, Biden only mentioned his proposed immigration overhaul in passing, a sign of how far down his priority list it's fallen.
Esther Olavarria, deputy director for immigration for the White House's Domestic Policy, defended the Biden administration's policies during a forum Wednesday hosted by the Migration Policy Institute. She said the White House has not given up on getting immigration reform through Congress and is working on a host of other policy changes, even if the progress has been slow.
"There's a lot of work that is still underway that will be significant and will help many many people,” said Olavarria, who is planning to retire from her position at the White House.
No ‘meaningful way’ to seek asylum
In his first days in office, Biden sent Congress a sweeping immigration reform proposal, established a task force to help reunite families and children who were separated at the border and suspended emergency funds allocated to build a wall on the southern border.
Immigration rights advocates cheered the moves as the start of a new era after four years of Trump's unwelcoming rhetoric and anti-immigrant policies. But the celebrations quickly soured.
Immigration advocates have a litany of complaints about Biden's approach to immigration. But perhaps the most irksome is the White House's refusal to repeal a Trump-era policy that allows U.S. border agents to expel asylum seekers to Mexico to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Trump invoked the policy, known as Title 42, as a step to protect public health. The Biden administration has embraced it under the same public health justification, denying critics' assertions they are using it to curb immigration.
Immigration advocates say it makes it impossible for most migrants to seek asylum.
Lindsay Toczylowski, co-executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center, said she's been forced to tell one family after another "there are no safe options for them to seek protection."
One mother she met in Tijuana, Mexico, sleeps with a knife to protect herself and her three daughters, amid fears they are vulnerable to sexual assault in their tent.
“Really what we need at our border is a functioning asylum system that's open to people who are presenting themselves and asking for protection,” Toczylowski said. “A year into the Biden administration, they have not done that in any meaningful way and primarily because of the continued use of Title 42.”
Advocates also fault Biden for expanding the Migrant Protection Protocols, which forces asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while they await U.S. immigration proceedings.
Biden initially tried to unravel that policy, also known as the "Remain in Mexico" program. But a federal court forced the White House to reinstate the program.
And then Biden expanded it, applying it to immigrants from "any country in the Western Hemisphere other than Mexico." During the Trump administration, only individuals from Spanish-speaking countries and Brazil were enrolled in the program.
The move prompted outrage among Biden's allies in Congress. More than three dozen Democratic lawmakers, led by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, called on Biden to nix the expansion.
In December, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is complying “in good faith” with the court order, but said the White House still believes the program is “ineffective” and “inhumane.”
Conservatives: Biden has given immigrants a 'false sense of hope'
Meanwhile, Biden's approach to immigration hasn't won him any plaudits from the right. Immigration control advocates and Republicans say his softer rhetoric has sparked record-level immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I think an inhumane immigration policy is one that says it's OK to come into the country illegally, encourages people to apply for asylum even though you know there is fraud in the asylum system, and eventually having to remove them back to their home countries because the data shows us that 90% of them will never qualify for asylum,” said Chad Wolf, former acting Department of Homeland Security secretary under the Trump administration.
“Giving people that type of direction and false sense of hope, I think, is a real disservice,” he added.
Border patrol agents apprehended more than 1.7 million migrants at the United States southern border last fiscal year, a record number for any fiscal year in history.
David Bier, an immigration research fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said Biden has broken his campaign promise to have an “orderly and humane immigration policy at the border."
"Nothing that he has done has improved that situation significantly," Bier said.
Some Republicans are already making immigration a central campaign issue ahead of November.
In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott cited Biden's "reckless and dangerous open border policies" in announcing his reelection campaign. In Arizona, Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich highlighted border security in a video announcing his bid for the U.S. Senate. He is vying to face Sen. Mark Kelly, a vulnerable Democrat who is seeking reelection in that border state.
Immigration is among the top three issues Americans see as a priority, according to a December poll conducted by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. When asked which problems they would like to see the government work on in 2022, 32% of respondents cited immigration. The economy led at 68%, followed by COVID-19 at 37%.
Advocates see some progress on Dreamers, workplace raids
Immigration advocates say Biden has taken some positive steps.
The administration has tried to offer protections for undocumented individuals already living in the United States, such as ordering Immigration and Customs Enforcement to halt large-scale immigration arrests at job sites.
In September, the DHS moved to preserve the program shielding "Dreamers" – immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children – from deportation. But earlier this year, a federal judge in Texas declared the program illegal and blocked DHS from accepting applications. The Biden administration has appealed the ruling.
Mayorkas also issued guidelines last fall saying that being undocumented should “not alone be the basis” for detaining and deporting individuals. He said DHS would focus on apprehending and removing undocumented immigrants who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.
Olavarria, the White House adviser, said court challenges and other obstacles have made it harder to enact the president's immigration agenda.
“There are so many different considerations that have to be taken into account,” she said.
When she worked in the private sector, Olavarria said she wondered why it took so long to enact change on immigration. Now, she understands “how difficult it is to enact change” every day.
Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden administration's immigration policies don't impress advocates