The Homeland Security secretary and Cuban refugee is being pilloried by the right and some on the left for his immigration policies, but the Biden administration is succeeding in slowing the influx of refugees and ending the cruelty of the Trump era.
Mayorkas said Friday that authorities faced “extremely challenging” circumstances along the border with Mexico days before pandemic-related asylum restrictions end. (AP Photo/Veronica G. Cardenas)
If Washington, D.C. were an aughts-era sitcom, we could call it “Everybody Hates Alejandro.” That’s Alejandro Mayorkas, the Homeland Security secretary, the guy who dozens of House Republicans want to impeach because he’s too soft on the border, whom several progressive Democrats in Congress have confronted for being too harsh on the border, and whom independent Senator Kyrsten Sinema said was “not ready” to deal with an expected surge of migrants on the border.
And yet when “Title 42”—the Trump administration policy that used the COVID-19 pandemic to allow the immediate removal of asylum-seekers from American soil without due process—ended last week, the surge Sinema and others dreaded did not materialize. Why? Because Mayorkas, backed up by President Joe Biden, executed a multi-faceted strategy, developed for months, to both dissuade haphazard border-crossings and encourage orderly migration.
The charged politics of immigration regularly vexes presidents, from Chester Arthur’s reluctant signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act to the failed immigration reform bills of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Donald Trump harnessed nativist sentiment to win the White House in 2016, then proceeded to repel the public with his policy of migrant family separations.
Biden faces the challenge of a record number of border crossers, fueled by pandemic-related economic and political upheavals in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti, and elsewhere.
Political cross-currents also buffet the White House. In 2020, Biden ran on a more welcoming immigration policy, in line with the sentiments of an increasingly multicultural Democratic Party base that, more than at any point in its history, views the immigration issue through a moral lens. Whereas Democrats once felt pressure from working-class Americans primed to blame unemployment on immigrants, today’s tight labor market, which contributes to inflation, sorely needs fresh workers from foreign lands.
At the same time, asylum-seekers have put a huge strain on municipal governments, which cannot easily connect large numbers of sudden arrivals with shelter, work, and school. The more Democratic mayors, like New York City’s Eric Adams, vent their frustrations, the more fodder they provide Trump and the racist elements in the Republican Party, who treat every immigrant like an invading criminal, and who are eager to depict the border as in a state of constant chaos.
How to carefully navigate the volatile issue was always on the mind of top Biden administration officials. Recall the backlash Vice President Kamala Harris suffered in June 2021 when she traveled to Guatemala seeking private investment for Northern Triangle countries (including El Salvador and Honduras). She upset the left, telling those thinking about crossing the border illegally, “Do not come,” then suffered widespread mockery when NBC News’ Lester Holt mentioned she hadn’t visited the Mexican border since assuming office, and she responded, “And I haven’t been to Europe.”
Putting the latter gaffe aside, the attempt to dissuade migration was a response to that year’s spike in illegal border crossing from the Northern Triangle. While Harris’s blunt rhetoric may have rankled some liberal sensibilities, her overall strategy appears to have worked. Apprehensions and expulsions of Northern Triangle migrants, averaging around 23,000 in the final months of 2020, peaked in July 2021 at about 95,000 and have since steadily dropped to slightly under 35,000 in March 2023. The Northern Triangle decline contrasts with the increase in overall apprehensions and expulsions, which jumped from about 93,000 in December 2020 to 234,000 in July 2021 and then kept going up, peaking in December 2022 at just over 300,000. (The Vice President’s office doesn’t credit her ultimatum for the decline but likes to cite the $4.2 billion in private sector commitments for the region she helped secure, although a CNN report suggests the investment’s impact is more likely to be felt in the future.)
Despite the drop-off in Northern Triangle refugees, the total flow of migrants from throughout the hemisphere dramatically spiked in 2022. In turn, the Biden administration scaled up its carrot-and-stick approach, with Mayorkas taking the lead.
Homeland Security has been trying to reduce asylum claims from taking place on our side of the border, even though the asylum law (known as “Title 8”) reads, “any alien who is physically present in the United States … may apply for asylum.” Until recently, Mayorkas continued to deport border crossers using Title 42 emergency powers. Now, the 63-year-old Cuban refugee is taking advantage of Title 8’s “Safe Third Country” exception, allowing deportation to another country than the migrant’s origin, with which we have a “bilateral or multilateral agreement” and “in which the alien’s life or freedom would not be threatened” and the migrant still “would have access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum.” Earlier this month, the White House announced an agreement with Mexico to send deported asylum-seekers to our southern neighbor.
The Trump administration tried something similar called “Remain in Mexico,” which was still being litigated when the Biden administration ended it last year. The Trump plan required migrants to wait in Mexico while their asylum case was considered, knowing that there is a huge backlog of asylum cases, often adding years to the process.
In the second 2020 presidential debate, Biden chastised Trump’s policy: “This is the first President in the history of the United States of America that anybody seeking asylum has to do it in another country. That’s never happened before in America … You come to the United States and you make your case … They’re sitting in squalor on the other side of the river.” On its face, what Biden is doing now is a flip-flop. But his plan is not about slow-walking asylum cases while desperate people suffer, but steering asylum-seekers to safer pathways to America—those less prone to exploitation by deadly smuggling operations.
In January, the Homeland Security Department launched a smartphone app so migrants outside the U.S. could apply for asylum and schedule appointments at ports of entry. In April, Mayorkas announced plans for migrant processing centers abroad, beginning with Guatemala and Colombia. And the administration has created “humanitarian parole” programs for those leaving Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, allowing migrants with American financial sponsors to stay for up to two years. Last week, the Homeland Security Department announced on Twitter, “More than 100,000 people from Cuba, Haiti,