Biden unveils measures to restrict asylum claims at southern border

Border issue has plagued US President throughout his time in office

Migrants climb over a barbed-wire fence after crossing the Rio Grande into the US from Mexico, in Eagle Pass, Texas, in August 2023. AFP
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US President Joe Biden on Tuesday unveiled plans aimed at restricting the ability of migrants arriving at the southern border to claim asylum.

"I've come here today to do what the Republican Congress refused to do: take the necessary steps to secure our border," Mr Biden told reporters at the White House.

"So today, I'm moving past Republican obstruction and using the executive authorities available to me as President to do what I can on my own to address the border."

The measures would restrict the number of migrants being granted asylum during periods when the border is overwhelmed. They also bar migrants who enter the country illegally from applying for asylum.

"This ban will remain in place until the number of people trying to enter illegally is reduced to a level that our system can effectively manage," Mr Biden said.

He said the Department of Homeland Security has proposed new rules to allow the removal of asylum seekers who have criminal convictions, while the Department of Justice will aim to have immigration courts hasten decisions on asylum cases.

The new asylum restrictions will be activated when the daily average of border arrests tops 2,500 over the course of a week, AP reported before Mr Biden's announcement, quoting a US official.

The official added that the restrictions are not permanent and will be paused when arrests drop below 1,500 a day.

Mr Biden also urged Congress to provide the funding to hire more immigration judges and border agents.

The US-Mexico border has plagued Mr Biden throughout his time in office.

Republicans have said he is not doing enough to stop the arrival of migrants, with conservative politicians blocking critical foreign aid packages for months in a bid to secure funding for the border.

Republican legislators once formulated a border bill with Mr Biden's team but backed out at the last minute when former president Donald Trump withdrew his support.

Mr Biden took aim at Trump during his official announcement, promising he would never demonise immigrants or accuse them of "poisoning the blood of a country" – a reference to a statement made by his predecessor.

Some of Mr Biden's own Democrats have criticised him over the border policies, saying his approach ignores the importance of granting asylum and fails to address the need to reform the path to immigration.

After the announcement, human rights organisations spoke out, with the American Civil Liberties Union saying it would be “challenging this order in court”.

Doctors Without Borders said it was "extremely concerned" about the effects the order would have on those seeking safety.

Mr Biden has continued to run up against the issue as he campaigns for re-election, with recent polls suggesting it is among the most important for voters.

Despite criticism of Mr Biden, migrant arrivals appear to be in decline.

In April, US Border Patrol recorded 128,900 encounters along the south-west border, down 30 per cent compared to the same time last year, Customs and Border Protection data showed.

Migrants at the US-Mexico border as Title 42 immigration law ends – in pictures

This comes after more than 250,000 encounters in December, a record high.

A major piece of the puzzle in the success of Mr Biden's strategy is likely to be Mexico, which has long walked a tightrope when it comes to migration, caught between the US to the north and impoverished countries in Central America and the Caribbean to the south.

Officials on Mexico's southern border with Guatemala are stretched thin with migrants regularly crossing into the country illegally, with “caravans” of sometimes several thousands making their way north.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has proved himself to be malleable when it comes to the US border – despite coming into office stating he would not do Washington's “dirty work” when it came to migrants.

Mr Biden said he has been working with Mexico to address migration, saying that "due to the arrangements that I've reached" with Mr Lopez Obrador, the number of migrants coming to the border unlawfully has dropped "dramatically".

But Mr Lopez Obrador will be leaving office in the autumn, and his protege Claudia Sheinbaum – who mostly toed the administration's line on policy issues throughout her campaign – will become the new president.

“Sheinbaum most probably will seek continuity but with higher exposure and co-operation of Mexico with other countries,” Alejandra Lopez, a political consultant with Mexico City-based Consultants on Gender and Government, told The National.

“The continuity that is somewhat expected is the line of [former foreign minister] Marcelo Ebrard … which has been to co-operate with the US regarding migration policies.”

Updated: June 05, 2024, 3:58 PM