Ahead of El Paso visit, Biden says U.S. will allow 30,000 migrants from four countries to enter monthly

President Joe Biden descends from Air Force One at Stewart Air National Guard Base in New York on Oct. 6. (Reuters/Tom Brenner, Reuters/Tom Brenner)

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President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a weekend visit to the Texas-Mexico border, along with a new immigration plan that would allow 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter the country and be able to work legally for up to two years.

In order to qualify, the migrants must apply from their home countries, pass a background check and prove they have a financial supporter in the U.S.

As part of the plan, the Biden administration also will begin to use the emergency health order known as Title 42 to expel the same number of migrants from those four countries to Mexico if they attempt to enter the U.S. illegally. According to the Department of Homeland Security, Mexico has agreed to accept up to 30,000 migrants a month from those countries under Title 42.

If more than that number are apprehended, immigration officials would process additional migrants under standard immigration laws, which could result in deportation and a five-year ban from being able to enter the country legally.

Nicaragua and Venezuela won’t take back their citizens who have entered the U.S. illegally. Mexico previously accepted only a limited number of migrants from Central America.

In a speech from the White House, Biden said the new actions “aren’t going to fix our entire immigration system, but they can help us a good deal in better managing what is a difficult challenge.”

Biden also said he will visit El Paso on Sunday before he heads to Mexico City, where he is scheduled to meet with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the North American Leaders’ Summit on Monday and Tuesday. The border visit will be Biden’s first since he became president two years ago.

According to Biden, immigration officials tried a similar approach with Venezuelans in October after a sharp increase in migrants from that country, and the result was a 90% drop in illegal crossings of Venezuelans.

Last month, El Paso was the epicenter of a large increase of migrants crossing the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez. Border Patrol officials released some migrants into El Paso’s downtown after processing them, and hundreds slept outdoors in nearly freezing temperatures because local shelters had reached their limits.

In fiscal year 2022, which ended in September, immigration agents encountered 2.4 million migrants at the southern border — a record-breaking number.

In a separate press conference, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the federal government would balance creating new pathways for migrants to enter the country legally with cracking down on illegal border crossings.

“We can provide humanitarian relief, consistent with our values, cut out the vicious smuggling organizations and enforce our laws to enhance the security of our Southwest border by reducing irregular migration,” Mayorkas said.

Mayorkas said that if migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua or Venezuela try to cross the borders of the U.S., Panama or Mexico without authorization after Thursday, they will be ineligible for the new program.

“The message is clear: Individuals should stay where they are and apply for these processes,” he said.

He said the goal is to deter migrants from making dangerous journeys through multiple countries where they often face dangers from smugglers and perilous jungle crossings along the way. Mayorkas singled out the June deaths of 53 migrants in San Antonio who suffocated inside a sweltering tractor-trailer after being smuggled into the country.

Mayorkas called on Congress to provide more resources to his agency to stem illegal border crossings and to fix the “broken” immigration system.

He also pushed back on criticism that the plan to send migrants to Mexico is similar to policies adopted during the Trump administration.

“It really has no resemblance to the prior iteration of the transit ban that the Trump administration employed,” he said, adding that the application process available to migrants and the new legal pathways the agency announced Thursday made it different.

In the administration’s announcement of these new policies, it also said DHS and the Department of Justice plan to propose an immigration rule that would deny asylum to any migrant who immigrated illegally to other countries and did not seek asylum in another country. This rule will not go into effect immediately but will go through a notice-and-comment phase.

Republicans have accused Biden of mishandling immigration and border policy and have criticized the president for not visiting the 1,951-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border during his two years in the White House. Texas shares two-thirds of the country’s border with Mexico.

“If he wants to make this a meaningful trip that seeks tough solutions to the unmitigated disaster his policies have created, I’d be happy to point him in the right direction,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a written statement Thursday.

The Biden administration’s latest immigration policy received mixed reactions from the president’s critics, his supporters and immigrant rights advocates.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said in a statement she is proud of Biden for visiting El Paso “to witness first-hand the depth of what we are facing and the tremendous collaboration and goodwill of El Pasoans as we continue to ask our Republican colleagues to work with us on true solutions.”

“El Paso has been the epicenter of this humanitarian crisis,” she said in a statement. “We are feeling the effects of decades of failed and outdated immigration policy.”

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, welcomed the new immigration policies, saying in a statement that he is glad Biden will be stopping in El Paso and hopes the visit will give the president “a first-hand understanding at the challenges our communities are facing.”

“We cannot continue to rely on antiquated systems from 10 or 20 years ago to solve the ever-evolving issues of today. We must continue to address the problems not just at our Southern Border, but with our immigration system as a whole,” he said.

Immigrant rights advocates, however, criticized Biden for expanding the use of Title 42 to other nationalities to be able to expel more migrants to Mexico.

“With this new border strategy, the Biden administration puts politics before human lives,” Marisa Limón Garza, the executive director of the El Paso-based Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said in a statement.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ordered the Biden administration to keep in place Title 42, which immigration officials have used for nearly three years during the COVID-19 pandemic to quickly turn away migrants, including those seeking asylum, at the southwest border. Title 42 was scheduled to end on Dec. 21 before Chief Justice John G. Roberts heard an emergency request from an Arizona-led coalition of 19 states, including Texas, to halt the administration’s efforts to stop using the health order.

Since the Trump administration invoked Title 42 in March 2020, immigration officials have used it 2.5 million times at the southern border to expel migrants to Mexico or their home countries without giving them an opportunity to ask for asylum.