The US government will expand humanitarian travel to 30,000 people from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela each month. The administration of President Joe Biden announced this on Thursday.
But people from those four countries who illegally cross the US-Mexico border will be rejected under pandemic-era policies, the Biden administration said, in a major expansion of existing efforts to stop Venezuelans trying to enter the US.
As part of the humanitarian program, immigrants must have a suitable sponsor and pass a screening process in order to come to the US for up to two years and obtain a work permit, senior administration officials said.
These four affected countries are among those with the most dramatic increase in migrant border crossings and have no easy way to quickly bring migrants back to their countries.
“No, don’t show up at the border,” Biden said on Thursday. “Stay where you are and apply legally from there.”
Biden will make his first visit to the US-Mexico border on Sunday, with a stop in El Paso.
The new humanitarian policy could see 360,000 people from these four countries legally enter the US a year, which is a huge number. But now many more people from these countries are trying to get to the US on foot, by boat or by swimming. In November alone, migrants from these four countries were stopped 82,286 times.
“This new process is streamlined,” Biden said. “It’s safe and humane, and it works.”
Similar to the Venezuelan initiative
The measure is similar to an earlier small initiative announced in mid-October for Venezuelans, with a key requirement that Venezuelans apply from their homeland. Administration officials stressed that the result was a decrease in migration from that country.
Overall, illegal migration continues to rise at record levels along the border with Mexico.
At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Majorcas highlighted the challenges of unprecedented and diverse migration. “The duration of these programs depends on what we are experiencing at the border and the dynamism of the migration problem that has gripped this hemisphere and, frankly, the whole world,” said Majorcas, who plans to join Biden during a visit to El Paso.
In fiscal year 2022, the US Border Patrol recorded 2.2 million arrests, a record high. In December, the immigration authorities received between 7,000 and 9,000 people daily.
This indicates that migration has not slowed down from monthly levels that recently hovered around 205,000 people per month for border guards at the southern border.
The El Paso area is currently the busiest area for immigration authorities. Administration officials said they would expand resources to border cities and counties, but did not provide details on the funding.
The new measures for Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti also include tougher measures for those who attempt to cross the border through Panama or Mexico after today, senior officials said.
The key to the action is Mexico’s growing involvement in international migration initiatives. Administration officials said Mexico would accept the return each month of up to 30,000 deportees, a reference to the use of a pandemic-era measure known as Section 42.
These measures also include stricter enforcement of expedited removal at the border for those who “have no legal basis to stay” and cannot be quickly removed under Section 42. The repeal of Section 42 is under litigation in the US Supreme Court.
Expedited deletions carry harsh legal consequences for repeated attempts, including a five-year entry ban. It can also lead to criminal prosecution. Section 42 has none of these harsh penalties.
Tom Fullerton, an economics professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, welcomed Biden’s move but warned that “the root causes of violent crime, political repression, economic instability and natural disasters will remain in place and will continue to challenge federal policymakers.” President Biden recognizes this, but may not be able to bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, or between [U.S.] and populist governments in the countries of origin of many migrants in 2023.”
Immigrant advocates criticize measures
The latest steps come as immigrant rights advocates call for a return to the border asylum process under U.S. and international law for those facing certain types of persecution.
“President Biden correctly acknowledged today that seeking asylum is a legal right and spoke sympathetically of people fleeing persecution,” Jonathan Blazer, director of border strategies for the ACLU, said in a statement. “But the plan he announced further ties his administration to Trump-era venomous anti-immigrant policies instead of restoring fair access to asylum protection.”
Blazer added: “Let’s be clear: nothing requires the administration to extend Section 42 while it claims to be preparing to end it. There is simply no reason why the benefits of the new parole program for Cubans, Nicaraguans and Haitians should be due to an increase in dangerous deportations.”
Vanessa Cardenas, executive director of immigrant rights group America’s Voice, also toned down her praise with criticism. “[Slamming] door to more asylum seekers by opening a few windows is not the answer or the right balance,” she said. The asylum system must be fully resourced, she said.
According to Biden’s new statement, two government agencies are “forcing” asylum officers and immigration judges to come to the border so they can process such claims more quickly. According to research non-profit organization TRAC at Syracuse University, an asylum claim can take more than four years to process.
In Dallas, Almas Muskatwalla, who works with Dallas Responds, a nonprofit collective, said she is grateful to Biden for recognizing the role of churches and faith groups in resettling migrants.
Dallas Responds operates a temporary residence center for migrants at Oak Lawn United Methodist Church. In recent months, migrants have arrived from a federal immigration detention center in Central Texas, but the group is ready to take in migrants from El Paso. “Right now,” she said, “we will continue to serve.”
In El Paso, Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, urged Biden to make good on his promises of a “humane border policy.” We are still struggling with anti-immigrant strategies like Section 42. He says he is against Section 42, but today he is announcing this pandemic rule to other countries. Where is the sequence?
“I don’t think the president and the administration have a sound human strategy,” Garcia said. “The only thing they have is a reactive strategy with the remnants of Trump’s strategy on the border. We are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, and its only solution is the expulsion and deportation of people?”
Biden’s actions will “crush our shelters,” said Pastor Rosalio “Chalio” Sosa, who runs Tierra de Oro Baptist Church in El Paso and five overseas migrant shelters in Ciudad Juarez. “I’m glad he’s trying to find a humane way to treat migrants, but where is the infrastructure to accommodate so many people heading towards us? We need shelter, food, clothing, money.”
He said he was not told how the Mexican government would treat the estimated 30,000 migrants who would return to Mexico every month.
In Mexico City, Roberto Velasco, head of the North American bureau at the Mexican foreign ministry, tweeted that the Mexican government was “happy with the new moves.” A Mexican diplomat called these measures an expansion of the “legal labor movement.”
In a recent interview with Dallas Morning NewsVelasco stressed the need to protect migrants traveling through Mexico. “You close the window,” Velasco said, “and open the door” in a safe and orderly manner. The goal, he said, is to keep migrants away from smugglers and costly and dangerous journeys through Mexico.
Enrique Valenzuela, the Chihuahua state government official in charge of migration, hailed the actions of both governments to “find a humanitarian way out of a difficult situation.” But without a doubt, it will challenge the border, here in Ciudad Juarez and in El Paso.
“Just because you’re announcing a policy change doesn’t mean that Cubans, Nicaraguans and Haitians will suddenly stop coming,” he said. “Long after October, we are still seeing the arrival of new waves of Venezuelans. We will handle the new challenge as best we can.”
Diane Solis reported from Dallas and Alfredo Corchado reported from El Paso. The Associated Press contributed to this report.