In a move seen as a major policy shift, President Joe Biden announced last week that asylum-seekers from four countries—Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Haiti—will be turned away if they cross the border illegally.
Migrants from those countries will now have to request asylum before arriving at the U.S. border so Customs and Border Protection have time to prepare for their arrival. It’s an effort to slow down record high illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border—CBP reported over 2 million encounters with migrants in fiscal year 2022, a significant rise from the prior two years, when the pandemic slowed migration.
At the same time, the White House is trying to encourage legal immigration from these four countries by introducing a new parole program. As many as 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Haiti each will be able to migrate legally to the U.S. if they can prove they’re able to buy a plane ticket, get a sponsor in the U.S., download a CBP mobile app, and pass a background check, among other requirements. They’ll be allowed to stay in the U.S. for two years with work authorization—but they won’t have a path to permanent status in the U.S. Many immigration advocates and lawmakers are not thrilled with Biden’s new policy, arguing it undermines the U.S. asylum process—at a time when the U.S. has been taking in a record-low number of refugees. At the same time, others believe this could actually be one of the largest expansions in legal migration in decades—during his tenure, Donald Trump reduced legal immigration to the U.S. by 63 percent—but its success will largely depend on how it’s executed.
The new policy also isn’t meant to be an end-all solution to illegal immigration—the White House punted to Congress, emphasizing that unless comprehensive immigration reform legislation is passed, “the United States’ broken immigration system will indeed remain broken.”
What’s driving this policy shift right now, and why does it focus on these four countries? I spoke with Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute who has spent years studying how U.S. policies impact immigrants. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Shirin Ali: Why is Biden narrowing in on Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Haiti specifically?
Julia Gelatt: These are countries that have had high numbers of border arrivals in recent months and quickly growing numbers of border arrivals. Normally, the countries that send the most people to the U.S.-Mexico border are, of course Mexico, but also Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. But in recent months there have been more migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela than from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. We’ve seen a real shift in who’s coming to the border, so I think this policy is addressed toward those newer border flows.
Why do you think Biden chose this moment to introduce a new border policy?
I think partly, the administration implemented a similar policy just for Venezuela in October and had seen success in their mind in terms of much lower numbers of people coming from Venezuela in the subsequent months. So I think partly they’re building on that experience. I suspect that there are also political motivations, addressing what has been a big criticism of President Biden: that he hadn’t been to the border and that he wasn’t taking the border seriously. Now he’s wanting to be seen as being proactive on the issue.
What was the Venezuelan policy?
It’s very similar. Basically, the administration announced that it would start applying Title 42 at the border to Venezuelans. So very quickly expelling Venezuelans back to Mexico. Then they also announced that there was a new parole program for Venezuelans who had a sponsor and who flew to the United States to get humanitarian parole. They said there would be a cap of 24,000 Venezuelans who could get parole. Now that they’ve announced this new program, it’s kind of wrapped Venezuelans into the new announcement. And so that 24,000 cap is no longer binding. There’s now the new 30,000 per month cap.
Speaking of, Biden is trying to open up access to legal immigration by allowing up to 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Haiti each to enter the U.S. if they meet certain criteria. What do you think of this concession?
This is a pretty big pathway to the United States. If there really are 30,000 people a month able to take advantage of this, that’s 360,000 people over the course of the year. That’s a really big number receiving humanitarian parole. It’s a pretty wide pathway for people who are coming from countries where many people are experiencing extreme poverty and violence and repressive governments. It’s an open question whether the people who can take advantage of the parole program are the same migrants who might have come to the U.S.-Mexico border. Since the migrants have to have a U.S. sponsor, a valid passport, and they have to buy a plane ticket to the United States, there’s some concern that it will be wealthier, better-off migrants who are able to take advantage of the parole program. And those might be different people than the people who were fleeing through Mexico towards the United States.
Do you expect Biden’s new policy will actually lower the number of people trying to cross the U.S. southern border?
It’s a good question. As the administration pointed out, the number of Venezuelans coming to the border dropped very sharply after they announced the program for Venezuelans. But whether there’s that same impact for these other groups remains to be seen. Cubans can travel fairly easily to Nicaragua, while Nicaraguans are in the region and there’s a shorter and more straightforward trip to Mexico and toward the United States for those groups than there was for Venezuelans. They have to make the whole trip from South America all the way through Central America through the really dangerous Darién Gap in Panama to get to the United States. I think it’s an open question how much this will affect border arrivals, and some people were already somewhere in their trip or had already decided to travel to the U.S. and may continue, despite the announcement of the new policy.
Biden’s new policy announcement also mentioned that migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Haiti would be barred from seeking legal entry into the U.S. if they don’t first apply for asylum at a U.S.-Mexico port of entry. How will this work, exactly?
Right now, the policy is that Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans who approach the border are likely to be expelled under Title 42 to Mexico. However, there is a cap on expulsions to Mexico because Mexico controls who comes in across their border, as well. Under Biden’s new policy, Mexico has agreed to take in up to 30,000 people [per month] expelled under Title 42 from these four countries. So it’s possible that some people from these four countries may be able to get into the United States anyway, once that 30,000 cap is reached.
The second thing that the administration announced is that they would expand the use of expedited removal, which was considered a standard process before Title 42. Under expedited removal, someone who crosses the border illegally is put into very rapid removal proceedings where they will be removed quickly from the United States unless they say that they have a fear of returning to their home country and they pass something called a credible fear interview. It’s people who are moved through that process that are subject to the five-year ban on re-entry to the United States.
Then the third thing that they announced is that they’re going to put forward a regulation sometime in the future—and this will take at least several months for them to put into place—to ban people from getting asylum between ports of entry if they have crossed through another country on the way to the U.S. and didn’t take advantage of asylum opportunities there first.
It sounds like Title 42 is this exception that’s woven into Biden’s new policy, is that true?
If people are subjected to Title 42, they’re returned to their home country. But because there’s no formal removal under U.S. immigration law, there’s really no consequences. There’s no ban that’s attached to being expelled under Title 42. That’s why you see people who are expelled, they often try right away again to recross into the United States and see if they have better luck on their second or third try. Bottom line, expedited removal happens under regular, non-Title 42 processing.
Title 42 is a pretty contentious immigration policy that’s been locked in legal fights—Trump implemented it, but Biden has denounced it. Yet, it still stands—why?
It’s pretty interesting. President Biden said in his statement, “I don’t like Title 42,” at the same time that he was announcing an expansion of the use of Title 42 to more nationalities. This really encapsulates the contradiction of the administration. They took a while before they decided to try to end Title 42.
Once they tried to end it, they were blocked in court, and it seems like they have been okay with Title 42 continuing because it is a convenient border management tool. It takes a lot less time for the Border Patrol to return someone under Title 42 than it takes for them to process through other means, like expedited removal or processing them into the United States to be put into removal proceedings from within the U.S. So, officially, the administration wants to end the policy, but they seem to have found it a helpful tool to use while the litigation continues.
Do you think Biden’s new immigration policy is a step in the right direction?
I think that the administration is in a really tough place with not a lot of good options. This could be a helpful step in trying to lower border arrival numbers in the service of buying some time to implement the broader changes that are really needed. Ultimately, we need deeper reforms to how the border is managed, and also to how asylum claims are managed in the United States. Those changes are difficult to make when there are so many people coming to the border. I think the goal is to try to lower the numbers in the short term to buy some time for longer-term changes. There are also concerns particularly about the forthcoming proposed rule on asylum and whether there will be meaningful access to asylum at the border under those new plans. So I think there is a lot to see about how all of this plays out.