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Migrant families, mostly from Central American countries, wade through shallow waters after being delivered by smugglers on small inflatable rafts to U.S. soil in Roma, Texas, Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

Dario Lopez-Mills, Associated Press

Unlike his family-focused agenda, Biden’s handling of immigration is at odds with public opinion

Polls say immigration is a weak spot as short-term issues cloud long-term fixes

SHARE Unlike his family-focused agenda, Biden’s handling of immigration is at odds with public opinion
SHARE Unlike his family-focused agenda, Biden’s handling of immigration is at odds with public opinion

Many of Joe Biden’s campaign promises and his early actions as president have centered on the well-being of children and helping their parents overcome the challenges of rearing a family. He’s supported a boost to the child tax credit to reduce the cost of raising kids, universal preschool to get them school-ready early and more money for child care, among other family-focused policies.

Yet his immigration policies, also aimed largely at family, could drag down his popularity and cost him support, some experts believe.

Biden has promised his immigration policy will differ from his predecessor’s. Immigration law professor Lucas Guttentag’s Immigration Policy Tracking Project said former President Donald Trump made more than 1,000 immigration policy changes. Biden is intent on undoing some of them, while adding his own directives or signaling future changes.

But as numbers swell at the southern border, many challenges remain the same.

According to the White House, the president’s  “immediate priorities” are reforming “our long-broken and chaotic immigration system” by creating a fair and orderly but welcoming immigration process.

Immediate needs are overwhelming hopes of a measured long-term plan, Migration Policy Institute reported. “Those demands have cost precious time in launching the long-term reforms that treat the flows as an enduring phenomenon, given the pressures driving people to leave Central America. Instead, it appears the administration is repeating actions that treat the problem as short-lived.”

The Hill reported border agents caught more than 171,000 immigrants trying to cross illegally into the United States in March, a high not seen since 2006. In January, just over 7,200 families tried to cross, compared to 53,000 families at the end of March. And nearly 19,000 unaccompanied minors have presented themselves at the border.

The New York Times reported that more than 20,000 children and teenagers are in the government custody in a system at “103 percent of capacity,” including nearly 17,000 in health department-run shelters, based on briefing materials from Operation Artemis, a Federal Emergency Management Agency-led response to the border crisis. The article said they’re expecting as many as 35,000 children will have arrived by June.

The institute said the surge in children trying to enter the country without adults creates “the perception of both an out-of-control border and a heart-wrenching humanitarian emergency.”

What to do about those children is perhaps the most family-centric immigration question, but it’s not the only border question the administration’s pondering. It’s just the one requiring immediate attention.

Among reform actions or pending plans, Pew Research Center said the president’s biggest proposal so far is to welcome more new immigrants, while giving millions of unauthorized immigrants already here a pathway to stay legally. He’s proposing an eight-year route to citizenship for 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants. Those here Jan. 1, 2021 could get a green card in five years after passing a background check, paying taxes and meeting other criteria. Naturalization takes three more years.

Among Biden’s other proposals, per Pew:

  • More refugee admissions, capped at 62,500 for this fiscal year and doubling that in 2022. 
  • Deportation relief for the Dreamers, brought here as children. An Associated Press poll said 53% of Americans favor allowing them to stay legally, while 24% object and 22% are neutral. However, just 41% consider it a high priority.

The House has approved the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 to provide relief and backed a bill to give migrant farm workers legal status. The Senate hasn’t acted.

  • Not enforcing the “public charge rule” that denies green cards to immigrants who use public benefits.
  • Adding Venezuela and Burma to countries eligible for temporary protected status. Biden wants Congress to extend the humanitarian status to immigrants who qualify so they can apply to become lawful permanent residents.

In the first discretionary funding request the president has sent to Congress, he included $1.5 billion for border security, including technology improvements and modernizing entry points. The request also asks for “$10 billion in humanitarian assistance to support vulnerable people abroad, including refugees and conflict victims,” as well as money to address backlogs of people who have applied to legally come here.

Finally, the president has asked for $861 million to provide assistance to Central America “as part of a comprehensive strategy to address the root causes of irregular migration” from that area.

Future plans include expanding access to green cards for people with close relatives legally in the United States. Additionally, Biden hopes to boost the number of employment-based green cards and let card holders bring immediate family without counting them against immigration caps. He would also lift the cap on the share of immigrants from any one country each year, now 7%.


Young unaccompanied migrants, from ages 3 to 9, watch television inside a playpen at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley, in Donna, Texas, Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

Dario Lopez-Mills, Associated Press

Skeptical public

A poll Pew Research Center conducted the first week of March found most of those questioned believe Biden can perform well on various issues, from handling the public health impact of COVID-19 to foreign policy decisions and the economy. They by a narrow margin, 53%, said he could make wise decisions about immigration policy. But within a couple of weeks, the border was roiling with would-be immigrants.

While a majority of Americans have said they favor immigration reform, early Biden efforts aren’t very popular. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll says more Americans dislike than favor Biden’s handling of the surge of minors. The Associated Press says immigration could be a “weak point” for the president.

The survey said roughly 6 in 10 people give high priority to the safe treatment of children traveling without parents, while even more want families already separated at the border reunited. But just 25% approve of Biden’s handling of the border crisis, compared to 40% who disapprove and 35% who are neutral.

Biden policy does not separate children from their families or automatically send children back, though most adults and families are still turned away under Trump’s Title 42, which allows “expulsion of unauthorized border arrivals,” the institute said.

The Biden administration is teaming the Border Patrol with Health and Human Services employees to run joint processing centers for the slew of youths they’re trying to connect with relatives already here. The Washington Post reported last week that Health and Human Services is spending $60 million a week to shelter unaccompanied teens and minors. FEMA is also supposed to help for 90 days.

Who’s to blame?

The New York Times said that “the surge in migration has been fueled in part by natural disasters and the pandemic’s toll on the economy in Central America, as well as violence and poverty in the region. But it is also the result of a perception among some migrants that Mr. Biden is working to unwind many of former President Donald J. Trump’s most draconian immigration policies and taking a more humane approach.”

Scholars see dumping controversial Trump policies around immigration as a mixed bag that may send a mixed message to those who might be considering heading north to America. 

In an opinion piece for Bloomberg, American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar Ramesh Ponnuru said erasing Trump policies that curbed some migration promotes “a different kind of humanitarian crisis.” He suggests the Biden administration look at the bipartisan Homeland Security immigration report released in late 2019 and act on some of the recommendations.

The administration says Biden’s immigration policy is intended to protect a number of groups, including the Dreamers, parents of citizens or permanent residents who are here legally, those with humanitarian temporary protected status, farm workers, some who fought alongside or helped American soldiers, and asylum-seekers, among others. But rather than a large immigration reform act, pieces have been broken into individual bills that may or may not pass.

The New York Times predicts even modest Biden steps will founder, given lack of support in the Senate.

“Why would you legalize anybody, sending another incentive to keep coming, until you stop the flow?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and a leader of past bipartisan immigration efforts. “I just don’t see the politics of it — it’s just too out of control.”