Vulnerable Biden tries to straddle both sides with new asylum rules

Vulnerable Biden tries to straddle both sides with new asylum rules

The Biden administration has said its proposed changes to asylum standards, unveiled on Thursday, that would fast-track some deportation will enhance security and speed up a backlog of cases amid record numbers of arrivals at the US-Mexico border.

The changes will also, by Biden’s own admission, be limited in scope and only affect a “small” number of people who have been convicted of serious crimes or may pose a national security risk.

It’s a measured step that nonetheless highlights how Joe Biden, facing immense political pressure in an election year where immigration remains a top voter concern, is trying to score points on both sides.

Republicans have blamed Biden for a record number of migrants at the border. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, the party’s presumptive nominee, has presented a draconian vision for a “record-setting deportation operation” that would run roughshod over legal guardrails protecting immigrants.

The Republican party has upped the ante in recent months, trying and failing to impeach Biden’s homeland security Alejandro Mayorkas over claims he has failed to enforce the nation’s immigrations laws. The party has also seized on the killing of the Georgia college student Laken Riley to promote mass arrests and detention camps and stoke fears of immigrant men as dangerous, after an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela, Jose Antonio Ibarra, was charged with her murder.

Pressure to clamp down on border crossings has also come from centrist and swing-state Democrats, even as progressives, immigration rights advocates and Latino leaders have urged the president to do more to protect immigrants within the US and improve conditions for asylum seekers at the border.

The proposal is the president’s latest attempt to address an issue that represents one of his biggest vulnerabilities in the election. Under current rules, asylum officers review an asylum seeker’s background and any criminal charges against them during the interview stage of the process. Under the proposed new standards, officers at the border could turn some asylum seekers away within days or hours of their arrival at the border, during an initial screening for “credible fear” of persecution they are fleeing.

The proposed rule that was released on. Thursday would only affect about 2 to 3% of asylum seekers, by the administration’s estimation, based on historical data. It also aims to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist. Decades of data has found that immigrants, including asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, are much less likely to be incarcerated or convicted of a crime than US-born people. Recent investigations have also found no link between undocumented immigrants and violent or property crimes.

Moreover, migrants who turn themselves in to United States Border Patrol so they can seek asylum are already subject to heavy surveillance, via ankle monitors, cellphone apps and check-in protocols, while they wait – sometime for years – for their cases to be processed through immigration courts.

“There is already a nearly impossibly high standard when it comes to asylum adjudications, and eligibility for asylum,” said Faisal Al-Juburi, chief external affairs officer at Raíces, an immigrant support and advocacy group in Texas. “I think this stands to exacerbate further what is a manufactured crisis at the end of the day.”

The effectiveness of the proposed rule will hinge on its implementation, said Laurence Benenson, vice-president of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum, a centrist advocacy group. “There are some real concerns about whether people who have legitimate claims are just going to be turned back,” he said.

The proposed rules also raise another concern – that it won’t make much of a dent in the humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border at all.

The administration itself admits as much. “We will continue to take action, but fundamentally it is only Congress that can fix what everyone agrees is a broken immigration system,” said Mayorkas in a statement.

President in baseball cap shakes hands with federal officers at borderView image in fullscreen

A record number of people fleeing war, political insecurity, violence, poverty and natural disasters are arriving at the US border seeking refuge, sometimes waiting days at harsh open-air camps before they are seen at overwhelmed processing centres, and then months or years before their cases are resolved in backlogged immigration courts.

Advocates for asylum seekers and other immigrants have long been asking lawmakers to funnel more resources toward hiring more officials who are trained to evaluate asylum claims, more immigration judges and court staff, and offering migrants legal representation so that their cases can be processed more efficiently.

Despite Republicans’ characterization of Biden as permissive on immigration, the president has overseen the revival of border-wall construction and the unprecedented electronic monitoring of asylum seekers. After ending one of Trump’s most restrictive border policies, his administration attempted to implement new, tougher rules that would bar asylum seekers who travelled through another country failed to seek protection there. Biden is also exploring his executive authority to restrict asylum at the border.

Al-Juburi rejected the administration’s claims that the proposed changes would only affect a small number of people who are ineligible for asylum anyway. It would, he said, empower officers at the border without specialised training to make quick judgements about migrants who lack legal counsel.

“If you have any sort of criminal background based on being persecuted by a foreign government – maybe even for your own stance against that government – you could fall through the cracks and be turned away.”