State of the Union

Biden Deserves Some Credit on Immigration Policy, but He Refuses To Take Responsibility Where He Should

His administration has contributed to the problems Biden says he wants to solve.


Two years in, discussions of President Joe Biden's immigration policies have largely centered on record-high levels of migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border, exacerbated by an immigration system that hasn't been overhauled in decades. In this year's State of the Union address, Biden invoked some steps his administration has taken to address those issues but neglected to mention many of the ways it has contributed to the dysfunctionality.

Last month, Biden announced a new carrot-and-stick immigration framework that would welcome tens of thousands of migrants to the U.S. each month and step up expulsions for unauthorized border crossers. David J. Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, told Reason at the time that he expected "a meaningful reduction in unlawful crossings by incentivizing people to wait for the legal option to become available to them."

That's what has happened, Biden said tonight: "Since we launched our new border plan last month, unlawful migration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela has come down 97 percent." According to CBS, unlawful crossings at the border dropped by 40 percent in January—"the lowest levels of illegal migration along the U.S.-Mexico border since President Biden's first full month in office in February 2021."

Biden does deserve credit for recognizing that more opportunities for legal immigration mean fewer people are driven to migrate illegally. He could have also mentioned, but didn't, another thing he's done right: The plan's private sponsorship aspect allows ordinary citizens to sponsor Nicaraguans, Cubans, Haitians, and Venezuelans.

He also neglected to mention a big thing he's done wrong. As migrant arrivals swelled, Biden leaned into Trump-era policies that made the problem worse.

His administration upheld President Donald Trump's Title 42 order, which has allowed federal immigration officials to immediately expel migrants, ostensibly in the name of stopping COVID-19. Since Title 42 carries no reentry penalty, repeat crossings have ballooned, artificially inflating the number of repeat encounters. The American Immigration Council has noted that from FY 2021 through April 2022, one in three border encounters "was of a person on their second or higher attempt to cross the border."

Biden's address called for lawmakers to "come together on immigration and make it a bipartisan issue like it was before." There, too, his administration has fallen short. Evacuating Afghans who worked with U.S. troops had about as much bipartisan support as an immigration issue can have nowadays, with 90 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans supporting those efforts, per an August 2021 CBS/YouGov poll. But the Biden administration waited until the eleventh hour to carry out the bulk of those evacuations, worried about triggering "a crisis of confidence" in the flailing Afghan government. The foot dragging damned thousands of U.S.-affiliated Afghans to life under Taliban rule.

Biden called on Congress to pass his plan "to provide the equipment and officers to secure the border," as well as "a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, those on temporary status, farm workers, and essential workers." He's right about the pathways: The legal immigration system hasn't been updated in a meaningful way in more than 30 years, which has kept the U.S. from taking in migrants who work in critical fields. Exorbitant application backlogs have kept temporary residents from adjusting to permanent status. (Here, again, Biden fails to take responsibility.)

Yet while the president says he supports "comprehensive immigration reform," his record paints a murkier picture. "Biden has enacted rules that shut countless farmers and small businesses out of the visa programs they depend on," notes Sam Peak, an immigration policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity. "The fees and bureaucracy alone cost roughly $10,000 to hire just one farm worker….Biden insists on adding more red tape to these programs and fueling a black market for illegal immigration."

"America's border problems won't be fixed until Congress acts," Biden said tonight. And Congress should indeed pass reforms that tackle the root cause of illegal immigration—namely, a lack of legal migration opportunities. But the president should acknowledge his own role in the chaos at the border, and the ways his administration has kept a more functional immigration system out of reach.