Biden set high bar for himself on immigration. After a year, he’s straining to reach it

Jose Luis Magana/AP

President Joe Biden appeared to make good on his promise to begin a new era of immigration policy when, on the first day of his administration last year, he announced support for a far-reaching bill that would allow undocumented people to eventually become U.S. citizens.

Policy experts and advocates say the president has fallen short on key goals ever since.

One year since his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021, Biden’s efforts to broadly reconstruct the country’s immigration agenda have been regularly thwarted by Congress, the courts and a fraught political situation exacerbated by record numbers of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The combination of those forces has meant that, far from moving on from former President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, the president has often been stuck with the same positions he once forcefully condemned — to the growing frustration of former allies who once advocated fiercely for his presidential candidacy.

“They’re on the verge of coming away empty-handed from Congress. They’ve reverted to hard-line policies on the border. And they seem more interested in managing headlines than in modernizing our immigration,” said Frank Sharry, a longtime advocate for immigrant rights. “I’m disappointed, to say the least.”

Sharry, the founder of the pro-immigrant group America’s Voice, added that he thought that the administration’s move last fall to deport thousands of Haitian migrants from the country’s southern border in particular was “politically cynical and morally unconscionable.”

The criticism leaves Biden in a vulnerable political position, in danger of losing support among both moderates and Republicans who don’t think he’s taken a hard enough line on the southern border and liberals who think he’s achieved too little change on an issue he repeatedly promised to tackle during his campaign.

Sharry and other advocates concede — and administration officials forcefully point out — that the president’s vision for an overhaul of the country’s immigration system was always going to take longer than a year to achieve, given the complicated policy objectives at stake. And they say he has been able to carry out some of his proposed changes, especially through executive action.

But they worry that a rocky first year in office will give way to an even more difficult second year, as political pressure mounts before the midterm elections.

“They haven’t done enough, but the possibility exists they can do more. They have that power, they have that ability,” said Florida Immigrant Coalition spokesperson Melissa Taveras.

She added: “Fortunately, we are not hearing the same narrative that attacks the immigrant community and that’s definitely a plus, But unfortunately we are seeing that some policies that really impact immigrants are still in place.”

Top administration officials rebut suggestions they haven’t done much on immigration policy in their first year.

“In this first year we have been rebuilding an immigration system that was dismantled by the prior administration,” said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on a phone call with journalists Wednesday, “We have had to rescind cruel policies, bring offices back to life, issue new policies and rebuild entire operations.”

‘It’s almost like we don’t exist’

Biden’s most high-profile setbacks on immigration have come in Congress, where legislation to provide legal status to undocumented people has been stymied in the face of near-unanimous Republican opposition.

Efforts to include expanded legal protections in the so-called reconciliation bill, which would not require the support of any Republican senator, have also been stymied by the Senate parliamentarian, leaving Democrats without a clear strategy of how to proceed.

A federal court decision forced the Biden administration to re-implement Migrant Protection Protocols— colloquially known as “Remain in Mexico” — a Trump-era initiative that requires migrants that come through the southern U.S. border to stay in Mexico while their immigration cases are processed.

And the administration has also retained a public health provision invoked by Trump, known as Title 42, that has allowed authorities to turn away migrants at the U.S. border during the COVID-19 pandemic, infuriating advocates and contributing to a growing sense that the administration is ignoring their concerns.

“As I speak to others, other elected officials, there are many who would tell you the same thing: It’s almost like we don’t exist. We’re not here,” said former Democratic Congressman Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois, a longtime immigration advocate.

The administration’s handling of thousands of desperate Haitians migrants at the Texas-Mexico border in September also became a flash point that provoked a sharp escalation of criticism of the administration’s immigration policy, when DHS announced that it was accelerating deportations to Haiti under Title 42. Footage of a Border Patrol agent on horseback chasing Haitian migrants exacerbated concerns and elicited outrage and condemnation, even among Democrats.

Haitian and immigration advocates have continued to slam the administration, pointing out that despite the deteriorating situation in Haiti, which last year saw the assassination of its president and a devastating earthquake along its southern peninsula, the U.S. has continued to deport Haitians.

Since mid-September, more than 15,000 Haitian have been expelled. In total, more than 18,000 Haitians have been returned to Haiti since Biden took office.

“Their treatment of the Haitians, it was both heartbreaking and deplorable,” Gutiérrez said.

‘Fix this.’ Miami officials furious over Haitian deportations, inaction from Biden.

‘A profound shift from the prior administration’

Besides announcing early in his tenure that he was sending Congress a bill to create a pathway to citizenship for millions of people, Biden also repealed Trump administration travel bans from Muslim-majority and African nations and created a task force focused on reuniting families separated under the previous administration’s policies.

“This administration is committed to working day in and day out to provide relief to immigrants and bring our immigration system into the 21st century,” a White House spokesman said.

On the call with journalists, Mayorkas also highlighted that DHS ended Trump-era changes to Public Charge rules, which enabled authorities to reject visas or green card applications if the applicant might need to use government benefits. The agency also offered Temporary Protected Status — which allows migrants from nations in turmoil to temporarily live and work in the United States — to Haitians and Venezuelans, among others.

Immigration advocates are worried that the courts will do away with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program that allows undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children to live and work in the country, amid an ongoing judicial process.

But the top Biden official said that the administration was working on a “regulation” that would further strengthen the program.

Polling poorly on immigration

Biden’s handling of immigration has received among the lowest marks of any part of his broader agenda. A Gallup survey from November, for instance, found that just 31% of adults approved of his immigration policies, including just 61% of Democrats — an unusually low number for the president among voters of his own party.

The public rated his handling of immigration lower than his response to the pandemic, healthcare, the economy or foreign affairs, according to the poll.

Republicans have singled out Biden’s handling of the U.S.-Mexico border as a political liability since the opening months of his administration.

“Chaos and incompetence is the only way to define President Biden’s first year, and that is especially true when it comes to immigration,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement. “Not only did Biden reduce enforcement and welcome illegal immigrants into the country, his administration is sending illegal immigrants to cities and towns all across America.”

Republican Rep. María Elvira Salazar of Miami — who described herself to the Miami Herald as a “brown girl from the hood” and who represents a majority Hispanic district — plans to introduce an immigration reform bill in February.

“The Dems, for the last 35 years, have been promising and promising and promising immigration reform law,” she said. “They have played political football with us. Enough. ... What’s urgent right now? To take care of the border. What’s important? To take care of the people who have been here for more than five years, the Dreamers, the TPS [holders].”

Immigration activists argue that, unless the president takes additional action, including striking down Title 42 and making a new push for legislation on Capitol Hill, he’ll suffer among Democratic voters, too.

It’s a politically ruinous position to hold, they say.

“They’re creating a backlash of swing voters and a backlash of base voters,” Sharry said. “Wow. Wow, that’s hard to do. But they’ve done it.”

Washington Correspondent Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.