In a message intended to prevent a rush to the southwestern border, the incoming Biden administration announced on Tuesday that it would not immediately reverse restrictions imposed by President Trump that have effectively halted asylum and left thousands of migrants stranded outside the United States.
The Trump administration progressively tightened restrictions on asylum, effectively sealing the border to asylum seekers by forcing them to wait in Mexico for the duration of their immigration hearings and disqualifying people who did not first seek protection in a country they passed en route to the United States.
During his campaign, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. promised to swiftly reverse those and other Trump administration border policies. But on Tuesday, Mr. Biden and his top advisers seemed to walk back those pledges.
At an event in Wilmington, Del., the president-elect told reporters that he would enact a more “humane policy” at the borders but that his administration would need “probably the next six months” to rebuild a system to process migrants and secure funding for immigration judges.
Changing Mr. Trump’s policies immediately, he warned, would be “the last thing we need” because it might lead to having “two million people on our border.”
“It will get done and it will get done quickly but it’s not going to be able to be done on Day 1,” Mr. Biden added.
Immigrant advocates and human rights groups have called on Mr. Biden to swiftly roll back immigration measures that have barred most people from entering the United States. On Tuesday, they expressed openness to waiting for policy changes — but not for too long.
“Certainly the Biden administration is going to need a little time to undo all the damage and chaos that has been inflicted on the immigration and asylum systems, but the United States does not need six months in order to uphold its legal obligations under U.S. refugee law and treaties,” said Eleanor Acer, senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First.
In their first detailed briefing with reporters on the president-elect’s immigration and border policies, aides to Mr. Biden said the new administration would eventually resume processing of asylum seekers at ports of entry along the border. But they said that initially only a limited number of migrants would be allowed to have their claims heard.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Mr. Biden has not taken office, said he aimed to pivot to what they called a more humane approach not just at the border but also toward refugees abroad seeking safe haven in the United States and millions of undocumented immigrants living in the country.
Quickly undoing Mr. Trump’s policies could be construed as rolling out the welcome mat, risking an uptick in arrivals that could devolve into a humanitarian crisis for a new administration that will also have to focus on taming the raging coronavirus pandemic and reviving the economy.
“Processing power at the border is not like a light that can be turned on and off,” Susan Rice, an incoming domestic policy adviser, said a day before the briefing by transition officials.
“Migrants and asylum seekers should not at all believe the people in the region who are selling the idea that the border will suddenly be wide open to process everyone on the first day,” Ms. Rice told the Spanish-language wire service EFE. “It will not be so.”
After a sharp decline, unauthorized entries have been rising and could pose the first major test of Mr. Biden’s pledge to adopt a more compassionate policy along America’s border with Mexico.
Across the entire southwestern border, Border Patrol agents made more than 70,000 arrests of migrants in November, a slight decline from more than 70,500 border crossings recorded in October. That was the largest number since the summer of 2019, when families fleeing poverty and violence arrived at the border by the busload and turned themselves in to U.S. authorities before coronavirus lockdowns.
Intent on cracking down on unauthorized crossings and asylum, a system it believes is exploited by migrants, the Trump administration has moved in recent weeks to finalize tough border restrictions that could prove difficult for Mr. Biden to unwind.
One of those rules would bar migrants from obtaining asylum in the United States if they came from a country deemed to be a coronavirus hot spot, declaring them “a danger to the security of the United States.” This month, the administration completed other sweeping rules that restricted the eligibility criteria for asylum at the border and directed officers to deny most claims based on domestic abuse or gang violence.
The Trump administration in March also empowered the Border Patrol to turn away migrants immediately when they crossed the border, regardless of whether they wished to request asylum. Border agents have conducted 300,000 expulsions under the rule, which administration officials say is needed to prevent the spread of infection among American citizens and in detention facilities.
Aides to Mr. Biden said he eventually intended to abolish some and possibly all of those rules. But they did not specify when.
“It sounds to me like they’re taking operational considerations into account while they’re doing their planning,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, the director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “If you just say we’re going to lift all these restrictions, people will just come en masse.”
On another major immigration issue, Mr. Biden had promised during the campaign to revive America’s role as a world leader in refugee resettlement by accepting 125,000 refugees annually.
But on Tuesday his aides said that it was too early to commit to that number, saying that the current administration had so decimated the program that it would take months to repair. Mr. Trump had set a ceiling of 15,000 refugees for the 2021 fiscal year, an all-time low.
The steep decline in admissions has hampered refugee resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee and HIAS, forcing them to slash work forces or shutter some offices in some cities altogether. Operations conducted abroad for processing refugees, who undergo interviews, security checks and medical exams, were also gutted by the Trump administration.
Mr. Biden’s team has also indicated that the new administration would not rush to end a policy that has forced more than 60,000 migrants to wait in Mexico for their cases to be heard by an immigration judge in the United States.
That Trump policy has left many migrants living in squalid tent encampments where kidnappings, torture and assaults at the hands of drug cartels are reportedly common.
And while Mr. Biden has said he will stop construction of a border wall, Mr. Trump’s signature immigration project, there is no sign his administration will refrain from enforcement, using agents backed by aerial and ground technology.
“The whole conversation continues to be premised on how to deter these people when it should be centered on how we welcome the most vulnerable people,” said Roberto Lopez, an organizer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, an advocacy group, in the Rio Grande Valley border region.
Mr. Biden on the campaign trail assailed the Trump administration’s brutal “zero tolerance” policy that separated thousands of families at the border, and the officials said that he would form a task force to locate parents who still have not been reunited with their children.
However, they did not commit to bringing back parents who have been deported, something advocates say needs to be done soon.
“What the Biden administration chooses to do over the next few weeks will literally have life-and-death consequences for countless children and families,” said Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who has been representing the families.
Thomas Kaplan contributed reporting.
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