WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Thursday that the US will immediately begin to turn away Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans who cross the border illegally from Mexico.
The new rules expand an ongoing attempt to stop the Venezuelans attempts to infiltrate the US that began in October and led to a sharp drop in the number of Venezuelans arriving at the southern border. Together, they represent a major change in immigration rules that will remain in place even if Supreme Court overturns Trump-era public health a law that allows US authorities to turn down asylum seekers.
“No, just don’t show up at the border,” Biden said when announcing the changes, though he acknowledged the hardships that put many families on the perilous journey north.
“Stay where you are and apply legally from there,” he advised.
Biden made the announcement just days before a scheduled visit to El Paso, Texas on Sunday for his first trip to the southern border as president. From there, he will travel to Mexico City to meet with North American leaders on Monday and Tuesday.
The first night under the new restrictions began in Yuma, Arizona, with eerily quiet, where hundreds of migrants routinely cross the border between midnight and sunrise every day, including many Cubans. By 2 a.m. local time on Friday, no one had crossed the road at a popular location where people could surrender to border guard agents.
A large Border Patrol bus with barred windows, normally used to transport prisoners, was idle with its engine running along with several white Border Patrol vans on the dirt road where the border wall ends. There was no one under a large white awning erected months ago to shield the migrants from the sun as they wait to be taken to the border post.
The agent said the low turnout could have been the result of the previous day’s announcement, but also noted that the river was high. He suggested waiting until 5 am. Migrants tend to arrive in groups of 200 to 300, he said.
National Security officials said they would start denying asylum to those who bypass legal routes and do not first apply for asylum in the country through which they traveled on their way to the US
Instead, the US will accept 30,000 people a month from four countries for two years and offer the opportunity to work legally if they arrive legally, have suitable sponsors, and pass background checks and background checks. Crossing the border migrants from these four countries have grown the most dramatically, and there is no easy way to bring them back to their countries quickly.
“This new process is streamlined,” Biden said. “It’s safe and humane, and it works.”
The move, while not unexpected, drew sharp criticism from asylum and immigration advocates, who had a rocky relationship with the president.
“President Biden rightly acknowledged today that seeking asylum is a legal right and spoke sympathetically of people fleeing persecution,” said Jonathan Blazer, director of border strategies for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Trump-era immigration policy instead of restoring fair access to asylum protection.”
Even with the restrictions of the health care law, the president saw number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border rise sharply in his two years in office; during the fiscal year ending September 30, there were over 2.38 million stops, the first time that the number had exceeded 2 million. The administration has struggled to close the crossings, unwilling to take harsh measures that would resemble those of the Trump administration.
This has led to relentless criticism from Republicans who say the Democratic president is ineffective at securing the borders, and the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has promised Congress to investigate the matter.
The new policy could result in 360,000 people from those four countries entering the US legally a year, which is a huge number. But many more people from these countries have tried 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.
Enyer Valbuena, a Venezuelan who lived in Tijuana, Mexico, after crossing the border illegally, said Thursday’s announcement did not come as a surprise but came as a shock nonetheless.
“It was coming. It gets harder all the time,” he said in a text message.
Valbuena said some Venezuelans waiting on Mexico’s border with the United States discussed the Canadian option among themselves. He was waiting for the results of the pandemic-related asylum ban before trying to re-enter the US and is seeking asylum in Mexico, which offers a much better future than Venezuela.
“If it gets harder to get to the US, the best way is to get paperwork in Mexico,” said Valbuena, who currently works at a factory in Tijuana.
Mexico has agreed to accept up to 30,000 migrants a month from four countries who try to cross or swim across the US-Mexico border and return back. Usually these migrants are returned to their country of origin, but the US cannot easily send people back from these four countries for a variety of reasons, including relationships with local governments.
Anyone who comes to the US can claim asylum, no matter how they crossed the border, and migrants seeking a better life in the US often pay smugglers the equivalent of thousands of dollars to get them through the dangerous Darien Gorge.
But the requirements for asylum are narrow, with only about 30% of applications granted. This has created a system where migrants attempt to cross between ports of entry and are allowed to enter the US to await their cases. But immigration court has a backlog of 2 million cases, so cases often go unheard for years.
The only reliable way to change the system is through Congress, but just before that, a bipartisan attempt by Congress to pass new immigration laws failed. Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives.
“The actions we are announcing will improve the situation, but will not completely solve the border problem,” Biden said, urging lawmakers to act.
Under then President Donald Trump, the US demanded asylum seekers wait across the border in mexico. But blockages in the immigration system led to long delays, leading to stinking and dangerous camps overseas where migrants were forced to wait. This system was abolished under Biden, and migrants returned to Mexico under the new rules will not be eligible for asylum.
Biden will also triple the number of refugees admitted to the US from the Western Hemisphere to 20,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean over the next two years. Refugees and asylum seekers must meet the same criteria to be allowed into the country, but they arrive by different routes.
Border Patrol is also creating an online appointment portal to help reduce waiting times at U.S. ports of entry for those arriving legally. This will allow people to make an appointment to come and ask for permission to enter the country.
At the US-Mexico border, migrants have been denied the opportunity to claim asylum 2.5 million times since March 2020 under Section 42 restrictions imposed by Trump as an emergency public health measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But there has always been criticism that the restrictions were used by the Republicans as an excuse to close the border.
Biden proposes lifting Section 42 restrictions, and the Republicans sued to keep them. The US Supreme Court has upheld the rules for now. White House officials say they still believe restrictions should be lifted but say they can continue to turn migrants away under immigration law.
The four nationalities Biden addressed on Thursday now make up the majority of those who cross the border illegally. Cubans, who are leaving the island nation in the largest numbers in six decades, were stopped 34,675 times at the U.S.-Mexico border in November, up 21% from October. Nicaraguans, the main reason El Paso has become the busiest illegal crossing corridor, were stopped 34,209 times in November, up 65% from October.
But Venezuelans have been seen far less at the border since Mexico agreed on Oct. 12 to begin accepting deportees from the United States. They were stopped 7931 times, which is 64% less than in October.
Venezuelans say the changes have been difficult, especially with finding a sponsor who has the financial resources to demonstrate the ability to support them. And even if they find a sponsor, sometimes they delay their arrival because they don’t have the economic resources to pay for a flight to the US. Some have expired the Venezuelan passport they need and cannot afford to pay for a renewal.
Spagat reported from Arizona. Associated Press contributors Rebecca Santana in Washington DC and Gisela Salomon in Miami contributed to this report.
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