Politics

Biden tightens the limit, offers legal road for 30,000 a month

WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden said Thursday that the United States would immediately begin turning away Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans who cross the border from Mexico illegally, his boldest move yet to confront the arrival of migrants that has surged since he joined two years ago.

The new rules expand an existing effort to stop Venezuelans attempts to enter the United States, which began in October and led to a dramatic drop in Venezuelans coming to the southern border. Together, they represent a major change to immigration rules that will stand even if they Supreme Court Ends Trump-Era Public Health law that allows US authorities to reject asylum seekers.

“Don’t show up at the border,” Biden said in announcing the changes, even as he acknowledged the hardships that cause many families to make the dangerous journey north.

“Stay where you are and search legally from there,” he advised.

Biden made the announcement just days before a planned visit to El Paso, Texas, on Sunday for his first trip to the southern border as president. From there, he will travel on to Mexico City to meet with North American leaders on Monday and Tuesday.

The first night under the new restrictions got off to an eerily quiet start in Yuma, Arizona, where hundreds of migrants normally cross like clockwork daily between midnight and sunrise, including many Cubans. As of 2 a.m. local time Friday, no one had crossed a popular spot where people could approach Border Patrol agents.

A large Border Patrol bus with caged windows, the kind typically used to transport prisoners, sat idle with its engine running alongside several white Border Patrol vans on a dirt road where the border wall ends. There was no one under a large white canopy erected months ago to shield migrants from the sun as they wait to be taken to a Border Patrol station.

An agent said the low turnout could be a result of the previous day’s announcement, but also noted the river was high. He suggested waiting until 5. Migrants tend to arrive in groups of between 200 and 300 people, he said.

Homeland Security officials said they would begin deny asylum to those who bypass legal pathways and do not first request asylum in the country they traveled through on their way to the United States

Instead, the United States will accept 30,000 people a month from the four nations for two years and offer the opportunity to work legally as long as they come legally, have eligible sponsors and pass vetting and background checks. Border crossings over migrants from these four nations has increased sharply, with no easy way to quickly return them to their home countries.

“This new process is orderly,” Biden said. “It’s safe and humane and it works.”

The move, while not unexpected, drew swift criticism from asylum and immigration advocates, who have had a rocky relationship with the president.

“President Biden correctly recognized today that seeking asylum is a legal right and spoke sympathetically about people fleeing persecution,” said Jonathan Blazer, the American Civil Liberties Union’s director of border strategies. “But the plan he announced further ties his administration to the toxic anti-immigrant policies of the Trump era rather than restoring fair access to asylum protection.”

Even with the health law’s restrictions in place, the president has seen it the number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border rise dramatically during his two years in office; there were more than 2.38 million stops during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the first time the number topped 2 million. The administration has struggled to crack down on crossings, hesitant to take tough measures that would resemble those of the Trump administration.

That has resulted in relentless criticism from Republicans who say the Democratic president is ineffective on border security, and the newly minted Republican House majority has promised congressional investigations into the matter.

The new policy could result in 360,000 people from these four nations legally entering the United States in a year, a huge number. But far more people from these countries have attempted to cross into the United States on foot, by boat or by swimming; migrants from these four countries were stopped 82,286 times in November alone.

Enyer Valbuena, a Venezuelan who lived in Tijuana, Mexico, after crossing the border illegally, said Thursday’s announcement came as no surprise, but a blow nonetheless.

“This came. It’s getting harder all the time,” he said via text.

Some Venezuelans waiting at Mexico’s border with the United States have talked among themselves about whether Canada is an option, Valbuena said. He had been waiting for the outcome of the pandemic-related asylum ban before trying to re-enter the US and is seeking asylum in Mexico, which offers a much better future than Venezuela.

“If it becomes more difficult (to reach the United States), the best way is to get papers in Mexico,” said Valbuena, who currently works in a Tijuana factory.

Mexico has agreed to accept up to 30,000 migrants each month from the four countries who attempt to walk or swim across the US-Mexico border and are turned back. Normally, these migrants would be returned to their country of origin, but the United States cannot readily send people back from these four countries for various reasons, which include relations with the governments there.

Anyone who comes to the United States is allowed to seek asylum regardless of how they crossed the border, and migrants seeking a better life in the United States often pay smugglers the equivalent of thousands of dollars to deliver them across the dangerous Darien Gap.

But the requirements for granting asylum are strict, and only around 30% of applications are granted. It has created a system where migrants try to cross between ports of entry and are allowed into the US to await their cases. But there is a backlog of 2 million cases in the immigration courts, so cases often go unheard for years.

The only lasting way to change the system is through Congress, but a bipartisan congressional push for new immigration laws failed shortly before The Republicans took the majority in the House.

“The actions we are announcing will make things better, but will not completely solve the border problem,” Biden said as he pressed lawmakers to act.

Under then-President Donald Trump, the United States required asylum seekers to wait across the border into Mexico. But clogs in the immigration system created long delays, leading to smelly, dangerous camps across the border where migrants were forced to wait. That system was ended under Biden, and the migrants returned to Mexico under the new rules will not be eligible for asylum.

Biden also wants to triple the number of refugees accepted into the United States from the Western Hemisphere to 20,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean over the next two years. Refugees and asylum seekers must meet the same criteria to be allowed to enter the country, but they arrive in different ways.

Border officials are also creating an online appointment portal to help reduce wait times at U.S. ports of entry for those arriving legally. It will allow people to make an appointment to come and ask to be allowed to enter the country.

At the US-Mexico border, migrants have been denied a chance to seek asylum 2.5 million times since March 2020 under the Title 42 restrictions, imposed as an emergency measure by Trump to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But there has always been criticism that the restrictions were used as a pretext by the Republican to close the border.

Biden moved to end the Title 42 restrictions, and Republicans sued to keep them. The US Supreme Court has kept the rules in place so far. White House officials say they still believe the restrictions should end, but they maintain they can continue to turn away migrants under immigration law.

The four nationalities that Biden addressed on Thursday now make up the majority of those crossing the border illegally. Cubans, who are leaving the island nation in their largest numbers in six decades, were stopped 34,675 times at the US-Mexico border in November, a 21% increase from October. Nicaraguans, a big reason why El Paso has become the busiest corridor for illegal crossings, were stopped 34,209 times in November, up 65% from October.

But Venezuelans were seen far less at the border after Mexico agreed on Oct. 12 to begin accepting those deported from the United States. They were stopped 7,931 times, down 64% from October.

Venezuelans have said the changes have been difficult, especially finding a sponsor with the financial resources to demonstrate the ability to support them. And even if they find a sponsor, they sometimes delay their arrival because they do not have the financial resources to pay for the flight to the United States. For some, the Venezuelan passport they need has expired and they cannot afford to pay for renewal.

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Split reported from Arizona. Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana in Washington and Gisela Salomon in Miami contributed to this report.

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