October 20

By Elliott Davis Jr.

President Joe Biden is looking to stem a root cause of a recent uptick in illegal immigration, enacting a politically risky policy in order to blunt Republican attacks on the issue ahead of crucial midterm elections but drawing the ire of many inside his own party at the same time.

Biden recently pinpointed Venezuela as one of three countries that were contributing to the influx, as a growing number of immigrants look to escape political and economic turmoil in that country. The increase comes as GOP governors relocate migrants to sanctuary cities in much-publicized political stunts. Biden had already been in some hot water for how his administration is handling immigration, with a Reuters/Ipsos poll from late September finding that 50% of respondents think he should be doing more to stop illegal immigration.

That’s where the president’s new “migration enforcement process” and pathway for Venezuelan migrants comes in. As part of a humanitarian parole program similar to one that was offered for Ukrainians earlier this year, up to 24,000 Venezuelans will be admitted through a streamlined process that involves sponsorship and “rigorous” vetting.

The administration hopes the new process, announced last week, will discourage Venezuelans from crossing the southern border illegally, reducing numbers as voters head to the polls.

But the process is paired with a mechanism that would allow the U.S. to send a number of migrants equal to that it accepts to Mexico under the Trump-era Title 42, which allows border agents to rapidly expel immigrants at the border under public health provisions adopted during the pandemic and blocks migrants from the chance to seek asylum in the U.S. Use of the controversial rule, which immigration activists have long denounced, puts the Biden administration in the politically awkward position of leaning on a measure its lawyers are currently fighting in court.

Experts say Biden’s move, while a positive step for Venezuelan migrants, is unlikely to make a real impact on the situation at the southern border and instead exemplifies the messy state of U.S. immigration policy.

“Because of the terrible politics of immigration, because it’s an issue that has proven to be more useful as a political tool than anything else, we’re in a situation where we are constantly creating policies from a defensive posture,” Jorge Loweree, the managing director of programs and strategy at the American Immigration Council, says. “Trying to just find ways to put our hands up and say, ‘No, go away’ to people who are arriving at the southern border.”

The announcement comes as the number of migrants seeking entry into the U.S. remains high, at least by recent historical standards. August marked the sixth consecutive month where Southwest land border encounters – which includes apprehensions – rose above 200,000, according to Department of Homeland Security data. (September numbers were not yet available as of Oct. 18.) Monthly encounters in fiscal 2021 only reached the 200,000 mark twice.

Biden recently noted that “fewer and fewer immigrants” were coming from Central America and Mexico. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has confirmed that a 2% bump in the amount of unique encounters that occurred from July to August was “driven largely by an increased number of asylum seekers fleeing authoritarian regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services noted on Tuesday that the new process for those from Venezuela is now being implemented.

As far as enforcement goes, a statement from Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas notes that “those who attempt to cross the southern border of the United States illegally will be returned to Mexico and will be ineligible for this process in the future.”

The president has since received backlash for the policy from both immigration advocates and lawmakers, including Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who said last week that expanding Title 42 to include Venezuelans “adds salt to an open wound” while adding that the new legal pathway offered, however, “is the right thing to do.” The International Rescue Committee similarly welcomed the creation of the legal path but described the expulsion enforcement as “unacceptable.”

But even the parole program itself has some detractors. Dany Bahar, an associate professor of the practice at Brown University and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says it has “a lot of hurdles to begin with,” including the sponsorship requirement and other logistical challenges. He also sees the policy – which requires that Venezuelans apply and await travel approval before attempting to enter the U.S. – as “not enough” to stem the flow at the border, which will likely keep the immigration-related political pressure on Biden high.

“Thinking that closing the border … for these migrants is going to change people’s minds like, ‘Oh, OK, well, we’re not going to go anyway’ – I think it’s naive,” he says. “I think it hasn’t worked with Central Americans. I think it hasn’t worked with people that are fleeing. These are people that are fleeing. Nobody chooses for leisure to cross the Darien Gap.”

Loweree says the policy is a form of deterrence, which he believes has been the “focus of our border policies for many years” without being effective. It’s another example, he says, of how the country’s immigration system “is riddled with bureaucracy and delays and arbitrary caps.”

From a political perspective beyond these systemic issues, Bahar says the Biden administration’s decision regarding Venezuelan migrants is a missed opportunity for his party on the issue of immigration.

“In the ideas war, the Democrats have adopted a much less toxic narrative but, nevertheless, a narrative of no migration,” he says, comparing their policies and rhetoric to those of the Trump administration. “For some reason, they have just decided that’s not an issue in which they want to lead and make some structural reforms and take a stand. They decided to just manage the fires here and there, and then not too much more. And that’s disappointing.”