Comment / January 22, 2024

On Immigration, Biden Made His Own Bed

The president is still trying to appease his conservative critics on immigration, putting his reelection at risk.

Gaby Del Valle
A group of migrants of varying ages, with children holding adult’s hands, photographed from behind while walking up a dirt hill.
Migrants from Venezuela walk towards a U.S. Border Patrol transit center after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States on January 8, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas.(John Moore / Getty Images)

After years of grandstanding, House Republicans have initiated impeachment proceedings against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, accusing him of fomenting a “crisis” at the border. Meanwhile, members of the Freedom Caucus are threatening a government shutdown unless new immigration enforcement measures are added to the general spending bill. The GOP’s goal is to turn the 2024 election into a referendum on the Biden administration’s handling of immigration, framed by the notion of a crisis that has spilled beyond the southern border and into cities across the country.

Democrats, too, have bought into the crisis framing. Mayors of blue cities have blamed municipal budget cuts on efforts to provide housing to asylum seekers. These leaders have generally reserved their ire for Texas Governor Greg Abbott—who since 2022 has bused migrants from his state to so-called sanctuary jurisdictions—but they’ve also recently turned on the president, and with good reason.

Abbott’s busing scheme was designed to overwhelm and embarrass Democratic leaders, and it worked. A recent CBS News investigation found that the governor’s office stopped alerting nonprofits in Texas that coordinated with partners elsewhere in the country about bus arrival or departure times, turning the illusion of chaos into reality. “Every state is now a border state” has become a Republican refrain. Three years into Biden’s term, however, it’s impossible to blame conservatives for the current state of affairs. The administration can no longer claim to have been blindsided by Abbott’s busing stunt, nor by the global rise in migration and displacement. Biden has not only failed to craft a compelling counternarrative to Republicans’ ceaseless fearmongering over the border, but also to alleviate the very real problems that Abbott’s sabotage attempt has caused in Democratic-led cities.

There are, of course, limits to what the White House can do. Democrats’ pleas for federal aid and sped-up work-permit processing times for asylum seekers have gone unanswered, not entirely from a lack of political will but because both would require congressional approval. And the administration has taken some steps to get migrants into the workforce and out of city-funded housing, including extending temporary protected status to Venezuelans; expediting work permits for people allowed into the country under humanitarian parole (who are allowed to apply for work authorization immediately after arrival); and expanding the eligibility of existing work permits from a maximum of two to five years.

But there’s plenty more Biden could do without congressional approval. Some asylum seekers arrive in the US with destinations in mind, but many don’t. Instead of letting Texas lead the charge on where these migrants go, the federal government could ensure they end up in places where they can find a support network and housing. Last spring, the American Immigration Council urged the White House to establish a Center for Migrant Coordination within the Department of Homeland Security, which would streamline the process of relocating migrants—and, crucially, wrest it from Abbott and others who have turned busing into a political cudgel. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker echoed this request last October when he asked Biden to designate a single person from the White House to coordinate a federal response to migrants.

Republicans would inevitably decry a coordinated federal response. But would that be so different from what they’re already doing? Conservatives began sounding the alarm about a migrant crisis the moment Biden was inaugurated. Biden campaigned on reforming the immigration system, but after his early efforts to do so were stymied by Trump-appointed federal judges, his administration continually ceded ground on immigration. If Biden had ordered the CDC to lift Title 42—the public health provision that Trump used to shut down asylum at the border—in 2021 instead of extending it multiple times over the next two years, the bottleneck of asylum seekers at the border may not have been as significant. Had the administration coordinated with local leaders when Abbott began his busing program in 2022, Democratic leaders may not have felt abandoned by the White House. The underlying problems in the asylum system would still be present, but Biden could rightfully blame Congress for refusing to legislate a solution without looking like he was shirking responsibility on immigration.

Instead, the administration attempted to appease its critics on the right, not realizing—or perhaps not caring—that Republicans will always crow about a crisis at the border no matter what Biden does. They don’t actually want to win their immigration fight; they “plainly want more dysfunction and chaos at the border,” as David Dayen wrote in The American Prospect. But Biden will foolishly grant them a victory anyway by continuing to cede ground on immigration, alienating his own allies—and possibly costing him the 2024 election—in the process.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Gaby Del Valle

Gaby Del Valle is a freelance immigration reporter who is based in Brooklyn.

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