Migrants try to reach the United States border

Migrants try to reach the United States border to seek humanitarian asylum in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on January 17, 2024.

(Photo: Christian Torres/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Rights Groups Urge Biden to Stop 'Political Games' and End Cruelty at the Border

"The idea that 5,000 or even 10,000 people might overwhelm us trivializes both what our government is capable of and our nation's capacity to welcome. Those of us living at the border know this," said one El Paso-based advocate.

Progressives on Saturday urged U.S. President Joe Biden to halt his immigration-related appeals to "a voter who doesn't exist" as he promised voters at a campaign event in South Carolina that he would immediately "shut down the border" between the U.S. and Mexico if Congress passes a bipartisan immigration bill.

Senators are expected to release the legislative text of the bill this week, but Capitol Hill sources have said the bipartisan deal—negotiated chiefly by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), and James Lankford (R-Okla.)—would include a new executive authority to halt asylum screenings on days when border crossings by undocumented immigrants reaches 5,000 over the five-day average.

Under the provision, migrants would be expelled indefinitely until crossings decreased to 3,750 per day. A set amount of asylum claims would be granted at official ports of entry, but the standard for migrants making an asylum claim would be raised, making it harder for people—many of whom have been arriving at the border after fleeing violence and poverty—to get approval to stay in the United States.

"A bipartisan bill would be good for America and help fix our broken immigration system and allow speedy access for those who deserve to be here, and Congress needs to get it done," Biden said in South Carolina, a day after the White House released a written statement on the legislation. "It'll also give me as president the emergency authority to shut down the border until it could get back under control. If that bill were the law today, I'd shut down the border right now and fix it quickly."

Immigrant rights advocates were quick to denounce Biden's promise to eliminate asylum protections for thousands of people, while U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said the bill would be "dead on arrival" if it arrives on the House floor and demanded that Biden close the border immediately with his executive authority—something Biden cannot do under federal and international law, said American Immigration Council (AIC) policy director Aaron Reichlin-Melnick.

Although Republicans have insisted on border restrictions in exchange for more military aid for Ukraine and Israel, Oklahoma Republicans passed a resolution condemning Lankford for working with Democrats on the deal.

Johnson complained that the deal would allow "as many as 150,000 illegal crossings each month (1.8 million per year) before any new 'shutdown' authority could be used. At that point, America will have already been surrendered."

"How weak do you have to think the USA is if you're claiming that adding 1.8 million undocumented immigrants a year would "surrender" the nation?" asked Reichlin-Melnick.

Meanwhile, Eleanor Acer, refugee protection director for Human Rights First, warned that former Republican President Donald Trump's anti-migration Title 42 policy already proved to "be a human rights and migration management fiasco."

The U.S. turned away migrants under Title 42 more than 2.8 million times between March 2020—when it was imposed as the coronavirus pandemic began, ostensibly to protect public health—and May 2023. Human Rights First tracked more than 10,000 cases of migrants being kidnapped or physically or sexually assaulted after being expelled under Biden's continuation of Title 42 after he took office. The Kaiser Family Foundation also reported that the policy contributed to the separation of families.

"There are real challenges at the border, and now is the moment that we need our leaders to move forward effective policy solutions that will improve port processing, support communities receiving migrants, and create lawful pathways to citizenship for Dreamers and others," said Deirdre Schifeling, chief political and advocacy officer at the ACLU, on Saturday. "But let's be clear: Cruelty is not a policy solution—and barring people from seeking protection is both callous and unworkable."

"We've already had an expulsion authority before—Title 42—and we know that it did not stop people from coming to the U.S.," added Schifeling. "Instead, we saw record numbers of families and individuals arriving at our border seeking protection, and Title 42 caused tremendous harm to people fleeing danger."

Marisa Limón Garza, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas, accused Biden of playing "political games" and demanded that he keep his campaign promises to "restore a humane and orderly asylum and immigration system."

"The idea that 5,000 or even 10,000 people might overwhelm us trivializes both what our government is capable of and our nation's capacity to welcome. Those of us living at the border know this," said Limón Garza. "One's commitment to their children is a powerful force that drives parents and children to seek a better life in the U.S... Here in the Borderland we believe in supporting families and keeping them together, not turning our backs on them or tearing them apart.

“We call on Congress and the Biden administration to reverse course and turn away from the political games that drive us toward these reckless immigration proposals," she added.

Author and historian Dan Berger compared Biden's push for new anti-immigration authority to his enthusiasm for a "tough on crime" approach by the Democratic Party three decades ago.

Biden has "won no one over" with his statements on immigration since Friday, said author and podcaster Kate Willett. "It's cruelty for recreation."

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