President Joe Biden began his administration with lofty goals to overhaul America’s immigration system, but as the end of the year approaches, lawsuits and infighting have stalled policy changes, officials have faced criticism from allies and critics over border management, and efforts to pass immigration revisions appear further away.
According to Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council, the administration’s best-case scenario is a “totally mixed bag.” “The worst-case scenario is an effective continuation of what Trump desired.”
Immigration has become a politically risky issue for Biden, whose approval rating has fallen. During a spring influx of unaccompanied migrant minors, Biden appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to address the root causes of migration — an intractable issue that’s dogged previous administrations. While Harris has announced private-sector investments in Central America, she has largely avoided discussing the situation at the US-Mexico border.
Republicans have continued to capitalize on the record number of border arrests by filing lawsuits challenging policy changes, impeding the administration’s ability to carry out some of its promises.
Most notably, a federal judge in Texas blocked the termination of a Trump-era border policy that required non-Mexican migrants to remain in Mexico until their US immigration court dates, requiring the administration to reinstate the contentious program that it opposes and continues to seek to end.
Another Trump-era border policy, which immigrant advocates and the UN have urged the Biden administration to abandon, is still in place. When the coronavirus pandemic begins, a public health authority is activated, allowing authorities to turn away migrants at the US southern border, effectively barring them from claiming asylum.
When asked about Title 42 authority, the Biden administration referred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which, according to a White House spokesperson, deems it necessary given the Delta and Omicron variants.
Internally, there has also been dissatisfaction with immigration policy. “There has been disillusionment with immigration policy and a failure to follow through on principles espoused in executive orders issued earlier this year,” one administration official said.
Immigrant advocates – who had hoped for significant changes after four years of restricted immigration under then-President Donald Trump – were disappointed — have welcomed the unwinding of some Trump-era policies but also have increasingly voiced concern and disappointment to officials over the administration’s actions in numerous discussions.
The White House defended the administration’s actions and reversal of Trump-era immigration policies.
“The President has made clear that restoring order, fairness, and humanity to our immigration system are priorities for this Administration. Our immigration system is outdated and in bad need of reform; But 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 spokesperson said in a statement.
Despite setbacks, the Biden administration has made progress on its immigration agenda, including changing enforcement guidelines to prioritize certain undocumented immigrants for arrest and deportation, ending mass worksite enforcement, halting border wall construction, and ceasing the application of controversial rules, such as the Trump-era public charge regulation, which made it more difficult for immigrants to obtain legal status if they used certain public benefits.
In addition, Biden established a task force to reunite families who had been separated at the US-Mexico border by the Trump administration. The task force, led by the Department of Homeland Security, reunited the 100th family separated under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy last week.
Lawsuits have been filed as a result of the zero-tolerance policy and family separation. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, filed a class-action lawsuit in 2019 seeking damages for the toll the separations took on families, and attorneys for families filed separate claims.
Following a steady barrage of Republican criticism of the ongoing settlement talks, the Justice Department ended talks with attorneys for separated families this month.
More court hearings are expected next year, including in the class-action lawsuit seeking damages, as well as additional immigration policy changes, such as expanding asylum capacity.
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers have pledged to continue fighting for immigration reform – an effort that has plagued Congress for decades. This year, the Senate parliamentarian rejected several attempts to include immigration provisions in the massive spending bill, a setback to getting changes passed without Republican support.