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As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden emphasized how different his immigration policy would be from that of former President Donald Trump, promising to “take urgent action to undo Trump’s damage.”
But after nearly a year of the Biden presidency, immigrant advocates are disheartened.
“I would say that this has been an incredibly disappointing year,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel for the American Immigration Council.
“President Biden campaigned on a number of very welcoming promised changes to the immigration system, including at the border. … But when the numbers of people arriving at the border began picking up, a lot of those (campaign) promises began slipping away,” he said.
The Biden administration has been criticized by immigrant advocates for continuing to use controversial Trump-era practices like the mass expulsion of migrants under Title 42, and for expanding the “remain in Mexico” program, which requires asylum-seekers to await their U.S. immigration court hearings from Mexico.
After initially announcing the termination of the Migrant Protection Protocols at the start of the year, the Biden administration was forced by a federal judge to revive the program due to a successful lawsuit by Texas and Missouri, who argued that it had been wrongfully terminated.
The Biden administration has continued its efforts to eventually end the program, even as it reimplements it. “While this is a program that we disagree with, the injunction dictating court order implementation remains in effect, so we continue to comply with it in good faith,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a Dec. 14 press briefing.
Although U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, expressed hope and optimism for the future of the administration’s immigration policy, she too denounced the continued use of the Trump-era programs.
“I’ve been critical of the fact that (remain in Mexico) has been expanded to include Haitians, I think it’s a terrible policy,” she said.
But the Biden administration was also beset with significant challenges that impacted the progress they were able to make in 2021, Escobar said.
“They inherited a badly broken system, whether it be laws that have not been changed in years, or whether it be inhumane processes that were used as a deterrent, whether it be a Border Patrol union that may be unwilling to adopt changes,” she said.
Escobar pointed to information made public in 2019 about the secret Facebook group in which current and former Border Patrol agents shared sexist and violent memes that included herself and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, as an example of the challenge in the culture of federal agencies like the Border Patrol. She said the Biden administration still has “a significant amount of work to do” in that vein.
The administration’s response to highly publicized photos and videos taken in Del Rio, Texas, where Border Patrol agents on horseback appeared to use their reins as whips against Haitian migrants, was a major failure of accountability this year, said Shaw Drake, staff attorney and policy counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. The vice president of the Border Patrol union said the reins were being used as a way to control the horses, not as a weapon against migrants.
“(Department of Homeland Security) Secretary (Alejandro) Mayorkas said ‘it’s a matter of days, not weeks before we investigate this’ …, (but) later came out with a press release that basically details the failures of their internal oversight mechanisms and said their offices are still working on it,” Drake said.
The DHS Office of Inspector General announced in November that it had declined to investigate the incident, referring it instead to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Professional Responsibility.
“They kind of bat issues around to each other and each of those offices have serious limitations on what they’re able to do,” Drake said.
Some positive steps have been taken by the administration this year, Drake said, noting the exemption of unaccompanied migrant children from Title 42, and a November memo formally ending the Trump-era “metering” policy which set a limit on the number of foreign nationals who could be processed at U.S. ports of entry.
He pointed to the administration’s efforts to get unaccompanied migrant children out of the custody of Customs and Border Protection in March as an example that “when it’s committed to something it can move mountains and make things happen.” But Drake lamented that more was not done to prevent abuses and poor conditions in the new facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services that were rapidly set up in places like Fort Bliss to house undocumented minors.
The Fort Bliss emergency intake shelter housed several thousand unaccompanied migrant children by late spring, with whistleblower accounts later detailing “gross mismanagement,” unsafe and unhygienic conditions and allegations of sexual abuse against the children.
Drake said he hopes the administration will learn from its mistakes in 2022.
“I would truly hope that within the next year the administration finally admits its own wrong and rolls back that massively destructive border policy (Title 42),” he said. “I also hope that they correct course on the ‘remain in Mexico’ policy and don’t further entrench that as their own mark of inhumanity.”
Escobar is optimistic that significant gains will be made in the new year, particularly in transforming the nation’s asylum processing system.
“I see not just a ray of hope, but I see a window of opportunity that’s opened up,” she said. “I’m going to jump through that window (and) make sure that we reform the way we process asylum seekers at the border.”
Cover photo: Immigrant advocates say President Biden hasn’t kept campaign promises, especially regarding asylum, in his first year in office. (Photo courtesy of Michael Stokes)