Originally Published in The Washington Post
Nick Miroff and Maria Shaccetti - December 22, 2020
Biden had promised to end on “Day 1” a program that requires tens of thousands of asylum seekers, mainly from Central America, to await their U.S. immigration hearings in Mexico. But the president-elect said creating a system to process thousands of asylum seekers will take months, because the government needs funding to put staffers such as “asylum judges” in place.
“The timeline is to do it so that we, in fact, make it better not worse,” Biden said, speaking from his home state of Delaware, delivering remarks ahead of the holiday. “I will do what I said. It’s going to take — not Day 1 — it’s going to take probably the next six months to put that in place.”
Advocates for immigrants hope Biden will terminate the “return to Mexico” policy, known as Migrant Protection Protocols, before the Supreme Court is expected to take it up next year. Biden said he is already working with authorities in Mexico and other Latin American nations, as well as with U.S.-based nonprofit groups, to carve a path on immigration policy.
“Trust me,” he said.
Biden said he was not dragging his feet but “setting up the guardrails” to find a solution to the immigration issue, instead of creating a crisis “that complicates what we’re trying to do.”
Biden echoed what top advisers said this week to manage expectations about the pace of the new administration as they prepare to take office.
Speaking to reporters on a conference call earlier Tuesday, several members of the Biden transition team said the incoming administration would “need time” to undo “damage” to the U.S. immigration system and border enforcement policies that have severely limited the ability of asylum seekers to qualify for humanitarian protection.
The transition officials echoed statements made by Susan E. Rice, Biden’s incoming domestic policy adviser, and Jake Sullivan, his pick for national security adviser, in an interview published Monday with the Spanish wire service EFE urging patience with their immigration agenda.
Rice told EFE that Biden will use executive authority to implement his immigration agenda, but her cautious statements appeared to reflect the incoming administration’s worries that easing up too quickly on President Trump’s enforcement system could trigger a new migration surge at the border.
“Migrants and asylum seekers absolutely should not believe those in the region peddling the idea that the border will suddenly be fully open to process everyone on Day 1. It will not,” Rice said, according to a translation of the interview transcript.
Immigrant advocacy groups and others who deplore Trump’s policies have pushed Biden to embrace wholesale changes to a U.S. enforcement model designed to deter illegal migration through a system of detention and deportation.
Rice told EFE that the new administration would offer a “transformative vision for addressing migration in our region” and would work to build “a fair, humane and orderly immigration system.”
She said Biden will not immediately end the practice of rapidly “expelling” migrants to Mexico, measures implemented by the Trump administration in March, citing public health concerns. The measures allow U.S. agents to wave off normal asylum procedures and promptly return most border-crossers to Mexico, an arrangement Department of Homeland Security officials say is needed to prevent further spread of the coronavirus inside border stations and detention centers.
Rice told EFE that “processing capacity at the border is not like a light that you can just switch on and off.”
“Our priority is to reopen asylum processing at the border consistent with the capacity to do so safely and to protect public health, especially in the context of covid-19,” she said. “This effort will begin immediately, but it will take months to develop the capacity that we will need to reopen fully.”
Similarly, Sullivan told EFE that the administration would not immediately end the Migration Protection Protocols that Biden had promised to terminate on his first day in office. Under those Trump measures, asylum seekers are sent back to Mexico to wait — some in squalid tent camps — while their claims are processed in U.S. courts.
“MPP has been a disaster from the start and has led to a humanitarian crisis in northern Mexico,” Sullivan said. “But putting the new policy into practice will take time.”
Rice and Sullivan told EFE that Biden will hold to his commitment to immediately introduce legislation creating a path to citizenship for 11 million people in the United States illegally. Such a proposal will face long odds in a divided Congress.
“We need legislative changes to make enduring repairs to our immigration system, and the president-elect will share his vision with Congress,” Rice said. “He is committed to working collaboratively with members of Congress to achieve the needed reform that has long eluded the country.”
Officials from Biden’s transition team said Tuesday that the new administration will suspend deportations from the U.S. interior while it “sorts out” new policies for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Rice and Sullivan told EFE that the Biden administration would redouble efforts to stem emigration from Central America by creating jobs, battling corruption and improving security. Biden “will work to promptly undo” Trump’s deals with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador allowing U.S. authorities to transfer asylum seekers to those countries, Sullivan said.
“As currently written, the outgoing administration’s so-called ‘asylum cooperative agreements’ deny the right to apply for asylum in the United States to desperate asylum seekers rather than helping create alternative pathways to protection,” he said.
The Obama administration also prioritized controlling the border and swiftly deported tens of thousands of migrants seeking work in the United States. As vice president, Biden traveled to Central America as part of a push to foster investment in migrants’ home countries so that they would not feel compelled to leave home.
But dramatically more people are arriving at the border to seek asylum — feeling their lives are at risk in their homelands — posing a new challenge for Biden. Advocates say their fears are real.
Trump has alleged that migrants are seeking asylum because it is easier to gain entry into the United States, and his administration has implemented programs to hold them at bay. Thousands who attempted to cross at legal ports of entry were sent to Mexico and added to waiting lists, a process called “metering” that Biden transition officials have promised to end.
More than 65,000 others crossed the border and were sent to Mexico under Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols. Of those, about 23,000 remain in shelters and camps along the border, according to a new report by Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization that has been tracking conditions on the border.
Officials also have expelled at least 8,800 unaccompanied minors and thousands of adults, many to the nations they fled, under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order barring entry during the pandemic, the report said.
Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher and policy analyst Human Rights First, said migrants in Mexico are struggling to make a living and to protect themselves in high-crime border cities. Human Rights First has tracked at least 1,300 acts of violence against migrants in Mexico, including killings.
“We want them to adopt all the safety measures that are needed,” he said of the Biden administration. “At the same time, there needs to be some sense of urgency. There are a lot of refugees who are in danger in Mexico and who can be processed safely.”
He said many were headed to the United States in part because they have family members in the country who can shelter them.
“It can’t all happen on Day 1,” he said. “But it also shouldn’t wait until June.”
In their statements Monday and Tuesday, Biden officials did not address the incoming administration’s plans for the $15 billion border wall project, but the president-elect said during the campaign he would not build “another foot” of the barrier.