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Biden announces new border control measures and legal pathways to some migrants

President Joe Biden speaks about border security in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, on Thursday. Vice President Kamala Harris stands at left. Biden plans to visit the southern U.S. border next week.
Patrick Semansky
President Joe Biden speaks about border security in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, on Thursday. Vice President Kamala Harris stands at left. Biden plans to visit the southern U.S. border next week.

Updated January 5, 2023 at 1:25 PM ET

The White House is expanding a pandemic-era program allowing the administration to quickly expel people from Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti who illegally cross into the country from Mexico.

President Biden announced the plans at the White House this morning ahead of meetings Biden will have in Mexico City next week with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

As part of that trip, Biden said he also will stop at the southern U.S. border, in El Paso, to talk with local and federal officials officials about the border challenge.

"Instead of safe and orderly process at the border, we've a patchwork system that simply doesn't work as it should," Biden said from the Roosevelt Room.

The president said the United States doesn't have enough asylum officers or personnel to determine whether people qualify for asylum. And he said there are not enough judges to adjudicate claims to see whether those applying for asylum meet the standards required by law.

Biden urged migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti to use an expanded parole system to apply for asylum from outside the United States, and said that his administration was stepping up resources to handle applications more quickly.

As part of the plan, Biden said they are also expanding some legal pathways. Those include allowing as many as 30,000 migrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti who have family or other pre-existing ties to the United States to enter the country legally.

"My message is this — if you're trying to leave Cuba, Nicaragua or Haiti, you have a — and we — or have agreed to begin a journey to America, do not — do not just show up at the border," Biden said. "Stay where you are and apply legally from there."

The new plan is modeled after a policy rolled out this fall for Venezuelans with ties to the U.S.

Under the new plan, the United States will accept up to 30,000 Cubans, Nicaraguans, Haitians and Venezuelans each month while expelling those who arrive at the border unlawfully.

The administration said it saw a "dramatic drop" in the number of Venezuelans arriving at the border after implementing the program in October.

"We view this as one of the most significant achievements of the Venezuela process: fewer people risking their lives and their entire life savings at the hands of human smugglers," a senior administration official said.

To be eligible, applicants would need to have a U.S. sponsor and need to pass security vetting.

The administration also plans to boost refugee resettlement from the western hemisphere to up to 20,000 people this year and next year, officials said.

Biden criticized Republicans for not being serious about finding solutions to the immigration challenge

Biden blamed divisive politics in Congress for failing to fix the immigration system, and said his administration would try to make the system better using the tools that it has. He said his administrations announcement would not fix the problems, but would help manage what he described as a difficult challenge.

"This is a hard one to deal with, but we have to deal with it," Biden said.

He said he would assess border operations at El Paso on Sunday, and said he would use the trip to try to pressure Republicans to give the administration more resources for border officials, asylum judges and technology.

"They can keep using immigration to try to score political points, or they can help solve the problem," Biden said. "It's so easy to demagogue this issue."

Asked why it took so long to visit the southern U.S. border, Biden said he had been waiting to see what happened with Title 42 – which still is held up in the courts.

He dismissed criticism from Republicans on waiting so long. "Republicans haven't been serious about this at all," he said.

The trip comes with many political risks for Biden

The plan is likely to be criticized by immigration advocates who see the enforcement measures far outweighing legal pathways into the country.

House Republicans have also vowed to make Biden's immigration record one of their top issuesin the new Congress. However, the House has been deadlocked, unable to conduct any business, because of internal Republican dissent over who to elect as speaker.

Biden, who faces the prospect of working with divided government for the rest of his term, has been urging Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. He put forward a proposal on his first day in office, but Democrats did not invest much political capital to try to advance the plan during Biden's first two years in office.

The White House has been looking for a replacement to Title 42

The administration has been relying on a public health measure known as Title 42 to quickly expel most migrants seeking asylum without a hearing. Those measures remain in place, pending court action. But the new measures are designed to eventually replace Title 42, and some of them take effect immediately, administration officials told reporters on a briefing call.

The Trump administration used Title 42 at the border at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but immigration advocates argued it had been misused.

A federal district judge had ordered the Biden administration to lift the restrictions on Dec. 19. However, the U.S. Supreme Courtagreed in late December to give time for 19 Republican-led states to make a legal case to keep the restrictions in place.

The White House has said it preparing for the eventual end of Title 42 restrictions, but it has not yet unveiled a new plan for dealing with large numbers of people seeking asylum.

In 2021, it launched a pilot program aimed at using asylum officers at the Department of Homeland Security to hear some cases quickly instead of first sending them to overloaded immigration judges.

It also created a program for Venezuelan asylum applicants, limiting it to people applying from outside the United States, rather than at the border.

Biden will travel to Mexico City next week

The president told reporters he plans to travel to the region "to see what's going on" next week.

After stopping in El Paso on Sunday, Biden will continue his trip to Mexico City on Monday and Tuesday for the North American Leaders' Summit to talk about issues like climate and the economy — but also fentanyl smuggling and migration.

He has had an uneasy relationship with Mexico's López Obrador, who failed to congratulate Biden for winning the 2020 election for weeks, and boycotted a high-profile regional summit in Los Angeles last year.

"Biden doesn't need to get along with López Obrador. What he needs is López Obrador not to get him in trouble with the border, with migration," said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst based in Mexico City.

Biden said his administration is already working with Mexican and Central American authorities on the issue.

They've set up joint patrols in law enforcement with Mexico and Guatemala that share real-time information on locations that smugglers are using. He said U.S. Border Patrol officers have also embedded with Mexican patrols to detect and — and raid — human smuggling operations.

But he said there is much more that needs to be done.

"Look, we should all recognize that as long as America is the land of freedom and opportunity, people are going to try to come here, and that's what many of our ancestors did," he said. "And it's no surprise that it's happening again today. We can't stop people from making the journey but we can require them to come here and they — that they come here in an orderly way under U.S. law."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.