One Year Into His Presidency, Joe Biden's Immigration Policy Hasn't Made Anyone Happy
Some good changes have flown under the radar. But there have been few wins—political or practical.
President Joe Biden took office one year ago today promising that his administration would undo the damage former President Donald Trump did to the U.S. immigration system. He had big plans for reform and restoration. However, the U.S. immigration system does not look much better than it did on Inauguration Day 2021, despite improvements on the margins.
On his first day in the presidency, Biden began to tackle some of the harsh immigration measures imposed by Trump. He lifted Trump's so-called Muslim ban, which prevented citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from coming to the U.S. He signed an executive order halting construction of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. And he sent the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 to Congress. Among other things, that bill set out to create a path to citizenship for undocumented people, clear backlogs in the family-based immigration system, and improve immigration courts.
However, many of those early wins—and supposed reversals of Trump's policies—came with asterisks. Biden was right to rescind Trump's "Muslim ban," but nearly all families affected by the policy remained separated because of visa application backlogs. He was right to halt construction of the border wall (which was never going to work), but his administration failed to stop Trump's land grab lawsuits and the federal government continued to seize private property along the U.S.-Mexico border through eminent domain. That ambitious immigration bill has gone nowhere.
Since taking office, Biden has cherry-picked which of Trump's most controversial policies he'll keep and which he'll discard. The ones he's kept are cruel, counterproductive, and are failing to please either side of the political aisle.
Key among them is Title 42, which critics say violates longstanding U.S. asylum law. The policy was first imposed by the Trump administration and allows Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to expel migrants on public health grounds. Deprived of the opportunity to present their cases for asylum, migrants are very often returned to dangerous communities and countries. Biden has kept Title 42 in place, even though it was the brainchild of notoriously anti-immigration Trump adviser Stephen Miller. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials have questioned its efficacy as a COVID-19 mitigation measure from the very beginning.
CBP expelled over 1 million people under Title 42 in 2021, with over 7,000 migrants getting kidnapped and attacked by cartels and Mexican authorities post-expulsion since Inauguration Day. The Biden administration has also used Title 42 to deport thousands of Haitians to Haiti, even though many of the deportees hadn't lived in Haiti for years and were actually coming from South America. Some Biden appointees have suggested that the president's continuation of Title 42 "is largely based on optics—that it's staying in place because of concerns that ending it will fuel perceptions of a chaotic border."
But Biden's critics falsely claim that the Southern border is open. It's true that CBP reported a 21-year high of 1.66 million migrant encounters at the border in fiscal year 2021. The majority—61 percent—of those apprehensions resulted in Title 42 expulsions, and the figure fails to account for repeat crossings. "Perversely, continuing this Trump policy has also given ammunition to the hard-right nativists, because it has the unintended consequence of inflating the count of U.S. border crossings," writes The Washington Post's Catherine Rampell. Over one-quarter of encountered individuals were apprehended multiple times by CBP, Rampell notes—"nearly quadruple the share in 2019."
All the while, inefficiency has plagued day-to-day aspects of the U.S. immigration system. Two years into the pandemic, 60 percent of U.S. embassies and consulates are still partially or completely closed for visa processing. Nearly 440,000 immigrant visa applicants whose cases are "documentarily complete" are still waiting for visa appointments (the State Department scheduled just 26,605 appointments for this month). The nation's refugee intake hit a record low in fiscal year 2021 and our numbers aren't on pace to be any better in 2022. Legal immigration collapsed under Trump; it hasn't rebounded under Biden.
All that said, it would be unfair to say that Biden's immigration policy has been a complete failure. The administration evacuated a staggering number of Afghans after their country fell to the Taliban in August. Visa processing has been imperfect and many vulnerable people are still trapped in Afghanistan, but the Biden administration smartly introduced a private refugee sponsorship program that allows U.S. citizens to help support and resettle evacuated Afghans. Biden has rescinded some Trump-era rules that needlessly slowed down visa and work permit processing, and recently added 20,000 visas to this fiscal year's cap for the nonimmigrant nonagricultural worker H-2B visa. The administration restarted the Central American Minors program, which allows at-risk children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to come to the U.S. as refugees.
The Biden administration inherited a dysfunctional immigration system and has made respectable strides in fixing certain components of it. But those modest wins have been overshadowed by the unpopular middle path Biden has chosen. To his Democratic base, the administration's immigration policy is disappointingly punitive, unchanged, and contradicts campaign promises. Biden's Title 42 deportations, hard-line approach to the border, and lethargic processing of visa applicants have done little to placate his critics on the right, who say our nation's doors are open (though our borders are essentially as strict as they were under Trump).
After one year in office, Biden's record on immigration is bleak. He's failed to truly appease any political faction's concerns about immigration and is now stuck with both the bad optics of being an "open borders" president and the practical reality of a shuttered immigration system.