WASHINGTON — President Biden on Thursday announced a crackdown on people seeking refuge at the border with Mexico, but said his administration will also allow up to 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Haiti to legally enter the country each month to apply to the United States.
The changes come as the Biden administration faces increasing pressure to counter the southern border surges, particularly from the four countries where political instability and gang violence are rife.
“Today, my administration is taking several steps to tighten enforcement for those trying to come without a legal right to stay,” Mr. Biden said in a White House remark, days before a two-day summit in Mexico City.
“My message is this,” he said. “If you’re trying to leave Cuba, Nicaragua, or Haiti, or you’ve agreed to travel to America, don’t just show up at the border.”
The President described the new approach as one aimed at expanding opportunities for migrants. But immigration advocates denounced the changes, saying they include huge new restrictions on the right to seek asylum for people forced to flee their countries.
Eleanor Acer, director of refugee protection at Human Rights First, called the new policy “a humanitarian disgrace” and said the president should not add restrictions on people seeking refuge in the United States.
“The Biden administration should take steps to restore asylum rights at ports of entry,” she said, “not duplicate cruel and counterproductive policies from the Trump playbook.”
The border situation has become an increasingly difficult political issue for Mr. Biden as his opponents take up immigration as a campaign issue. House Republicans have vowed to investigate the government’s handling of the border and begin impeachment proceedings against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas.
The president said he will travel to El Paso Sunday, which Republicans have urged him to do since he took office. Migrants there have overwhelmed the city’s resources. He added that he will announce new funds to help communities deal with the impact of increased migration.
“I know that migration is taking a real toll on borders and border communities,” Biden said, adding, “Our border problems did not arise overnight and will not be solved overnight. It’s a difficult problem.”
The new policy is an attempt by the government to redress what the president called an “orderly, fair, secure and humane” border. But they fall far short of a full overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws that Mr. Biden proposed to Congress on the day he took office. He lashed out at Republicans for refusing to even consider the proposal.
“If the most extreme Republicans continue to demagogue this issue and reject solutions,” the president said, “I am left with only one choice: act on my own, do as much as I can on my own to try to change the atmosphere.”
Officials said most of the recent migrants from Central and South America trying to cross Mexico to reach the United States were from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua.
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Under the new rules, people in these four countries will be able to apply for entry into the United States through an app on their phones while still in their home countries. If they find a sponsor—a relative, church, or nonprofit group—if they pass security and pay for a flight, they can legally live and work in the United States.
Migrants from these countries wishing to travel to the United States via Mexico would automatically not be eligible for the new program. And those attempting to enter the United States are quickly being deported to Mexico, which has agreed to accept up to 30,000 migrants from the four countries each month.
Biden administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity during a briefing ahead of the president’s comments, said the program would dramatically reduce the need for people from those countries to make the dangerous journey across the U.S.-Mexico border . An earlier program that applied only to Venezuelans significantly reduced the number of migrants from that country at the border, officials said.
But as many as 9,000 migrants try to cross the border every day, officials said, and it remains unclear how many of the people from the four countries can or want to use the new scheme.
Government officials said Mr Biden would also triple the number of refugees the United States takes in from the Western Hemisphere each year to 20,000. The refugee program is a separate way for people fleeing persecution to apply for legal entry into the United States.
Mr. Biden also announced an increased use of stricter enforcement measures at the border, which will allow agents to expedite migrants attempting to transfer between ports of entry.
Immigrant rights advocates say the measures, known as expedited deportation, deny people their right to due process and are designed to prevent them from making legitimate asylum claims guaranteed by US and international law.
The Biden administration also espouses a restrictive policy developed under former President Donald J. Trump, in which migrants transiting through a third country like Mexico can be barred from seeking asylum in the United States unless they have applied for asylum in another country first.
The Department of Homeland Security said Thursday officials would propose a rule that would not grant migrants the right to asylum if they “do not seek shelter in a country through which they traveled on their way to the United States.” Migrants who break the rule would be barred from legally entering the United States for five years.
Immigration advocates said it was an attempt to deny access to asylum for people fleeing violence, political instability and economic disaster. In a letter to the President from four Democratic senators last month, Mr. Biden was accused of accepting the policies of Stephen Miller, the architect of Mr. Trump’s immigration policy.
“By resurrecting one of Stephen Miller’s most gruesome attacks on asylum seekers, you risk normalizing the anti-American belief that immigrants pose a threat to our communities,” the senators wrote.
The third-country rule would require public hearings and a months-long review process, officials said.
They said the other border policies would go into effect immediately. The government is currently under court orders to quickly expel most migrants under Title 42, a public health rule introduced during the coronavirus pandemic.
But officials said they intend to proceed with the new border policy if the courts allow the enforcement of Title 42, as the administration intends. The Supreme Court is considering a challenge by Republican-led states to the government’s plan to no longer enforce Title 42. Mr. Biden said a court decision could come as early as June.