How the border boom tests Biden’s immigration approach


President Joe Biden has promised a more sympathetic immigration policy than that of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who moved in myriad ways to restrict the flow of newcomers to the country. However, an unprecedented surge of immigrants crossing the US southern border has reignited the longstanding clash over immigration and tested Biden’s relatively welcoming approach. A court ruling against a mechanism used to quickly expel about half of the arrivals complicates his administration’s ability to manage the influx.

1. How many people enter the United States illegally?

The US Border Patrol reported stopping 2.2 million immigrants who entered the country without a permit in the 12 months ending September 30, the vast majority of whom crossed the border from Mexico. The number, which includes some people arrested more than once, compares with nearly 1.7 million the year before, the previous record. It is impossible to know the share of border crossers who manage to evade patrols. One estimate is 50%.

2. What was the court ruling?

On November 15, a federal judge ruled against continued use of the controversial public health system known as Title 42, which was enacted under Trump to limit immigration at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In about 1 million of the 2022 arrests, authorities used this rule to quickly send individuals back to their home country or to the country from which they entered the United States. The alternative is to treat immigrants arrested under regular immigration law. It gives immigrants a chance to remain in the United States at least temporarily for the sake of long-term bidding for asylum, available to people who can show they have a legitimate fear of persecution at home. The demise of Title 42 has raised the potential to exacerbate the backlog that once led to overcrowding and other poor conditions in detention facilities at the border. To prepare for dealing with the problem of immigrants without a rule, the Biden administration requested and received a delay in implementing the judge’s decision.

3. Where do immigrants come from and why?

Historically, the majority of people who crossed the border illegally were Mexicans. By 2016, deteriorating conditions in Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle – made up of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – made this region’s population the largest group. More recently, border patrols have intercepted large numbers of people arriving from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. In October, nearly 70,000, or 38%, of the immigrants arrested were from these three countries. Economic and political instability there has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the Biden administration argues this explains the rise in total arrivals. Critics of the president say his compliant approach to immigration has amounted to inviting foreigners to enter the United States illegally.

4. How has Biden changed immigration policy?

Since taking office in January 2021, Biden, the Democratic president, has loosened many of Trump’s immigration policies. He has halted most, but not all, of the new construction on the wall Trump commissioned at the US southern border, and rolled back a policy that would require asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their court hearings. Homeland immigration arrests fell in fiscal 2021, which made up most of Biden’s first year in office, compared to 2020 under Trump. Biden originally tried to overturn Title 42, but was thwarted by a different judge’s ruling. Then, in the face of the influx at the border, he actually expanded the use of the rule in October by applying it to all Venezuelans who enter the country without permission.

5. How was the conflict over immigration reignited?

Expressing their discontent with the uptick in illegal crossings, Republican governors in Texas, Arizona and Florida have sent thousands of arrested immigrants north to so-called sanctuary cities, which refuse to comply with immigration enforcement efforts. Undeclared entrants are taxed on social services in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, DC. Despite the federal government’s responsibility to patrol the borders, staff ports of entry and process illegal arrivals, the countries along the border end up as way stations for many of those waiting to have their asylum claims heard in court and for immigrants who are never caught. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office estimated in 2021 that his state spends $850 million annually on health, medical, housing, and educational costs related to illegal immigrants. Republican officials across the country have said immigrants living illegally in the United States take jobs from citizens and are more likely to commit crimes, allegations amplified by the party’s candidates in the Nov. 8 congressional, state and local elections.

Some economists say illegal immigration reduces work and wages for low-skilled workers, especially Hispanics. Others challenge this argument and the data behind it. A number of studies have concluded that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans. For example, in Texas in 2018, the percentage of illegal immigrants who were convicted of a crime was 45% lower than that of native Texans, according to an analysis by the Cato Institute. Scholars who support higher levels of immigration also say that estimates like Paxton’s fail to consider the economic activity and tax revenue that immigrants generate.

7. How does Biden want to change immigration policy further?

On his first day in office, he proposed a bill that would create an eight-year path to citizenship for most of the 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States. However, Biden’s party did not have enough control over Congress to pass legislation without the support of Republicans, among whom views on immigration have hardened under Trump. Even if the bill becomes law, it only deals with undocumented immigrants in the United States as of January 1, 2021, leaving the issue of newcomers and futures unresolved. Some immigration experts argue that to seriously slow illegal border crossings, the United States should greatly expand visa access for migrant workers. Such a plan would face Republican opposition for opening the door to foreigners.

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