Biden Administration to Shift Funds, Deploy Staff Internationally as Part of Immigration Shakeup
Several agencies are implementing new policies as pandemic-era immigration policy comes to an end.
The Biden administration will send asylum and refugee officers to Latin America to help process potential migrants before they reach the United States as part of an effort to revamp its immigration policies before a pandemic-era expulsion policy expires next Month.
The Homeland Security Department also notified Congress that it will reprogram funds to support its new border efforts, with officials on Thursday pleading with lawmakers to provide additional resources. The administration is preparing to ramp up expedited removals of border crossers, expand legal pathways for immigrants and implement a restrictive new asylum rule as the policy known as Title 42 that immediately turned away more than two million migrants is set to end May 11. While officials stressed the administration is planning to tighten control of the border and quickly reject migrants without valid asylum claims, they acknowledged the end of Title 42—first instituted under President Trump—will likely lead to a significant uptick in encounters at the border.
The deployed federal officers will work with international organizations in Colombia and Guatemala to start, though DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and State Department Secretary Antony Blinken both said on Thursday they hoped to expand the initiative to more countries. The goal of the program, Mayorkas said, is to meet people where they are and help them avoid the often costly and dangerous journey to the U.S. while reducing the number of migrants who reach the southwest border. The personnel there will pre-screen individuals to determine their eligibility for legal pathways to the U.S., including refugee resettlement, parole programs, family reunification or labor-based visas.
Both Canada and Spain have agreed to accept qualified individuals who are processed at the new centers. The Biden administration expects to process between 5,000 and 6,000 immigrants each month through the new program, pledging to “scale up” the initiative from there. By comparison, acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Troy Miller recently told lawmakers he expects his officers and agents to encounter 10,000 migrants at the border per day when Title 42 expires next month, roughly doubling the current number.
“We are dedicating specially trained refugee officers to the centers,” Mayorkas said. “They will interview applicants for the U.S. refugee admissions program, and provide for the swift processing of a greater number of individuals.” He added the new regional offices “will make a big difference because we are surging asylum officers to work with the international organizations” to quickly screen applicants.
Blinken stressed that government personnel, not international groups, will conduct the screenings. The partnerships only allow federal officials to set up in existing physical locations.
They will enable State and DHS “to be able to bring some of [their] own officers and experts into these centers, so that people can come to them, and explore whether they're eligible for one of the various legal pathways to come to this country,” Blinken said.
Senior administration officials who elaborated more details on the program to reporters said the existing family reunification parole program will be expanded to include nations of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia. The officials noted that expanded parole options for immigrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela led to a significant reduction in encounters at the border of individuals from those countries.
At the same time, officials said the administration will increase its use of expedited processes to remove migrants encountered at the border within a matter of days. CBP has added phone booths and other private spaces to allow asylum officers and immigration officers to conduct rapid screenings and hearings to finalize those removals. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has sought to significantly expand its workforce to allow for faster screenings, while DHS has consistently deployed personnel throughout the department to assist Border Patrol in conducting administrative tasks.
The officials also said the administration will finalize its new rule to restrict asylum access prior to May 11. To be able to apply for asylum in the new system, the rule would require immigrants who entered U.S. territory after first traveling through another country to have either applied for asylum elsewhere during their travels, made an appointment at a port of entry through a DHS app or received parole through a limited program. The plan has received widespread backlash from immigration advocates and even asylum officers within USCIS, who said the rule would violate their moral and legal obligations.
“We welcome the Biden administration’s commitment to expanding refugee resettlement and other regular pathways in the Americas, but remain alarmed that the administration continues to pursue policies that punish people seeking asylum,” Eleanor Acer, senior director for Refugee Protection at Human Rights First, said on Thursday. “The Biden administration should abandon its widely criticized plan to bar many refugees from asylum, a step that would be a legal, moral, and political mistake.”
The senior administration officials emphasized that processing migrants under the normal Title Eight authorities, rather than the emergency Title 42 provisions, would lead to greater deterrence. Under Title Eight, the U.S. can impose a five-year ban on anyone who illegally crosses the border and can pursue criminal punishments for those who make multiple attempts.
As part of the effort to incentivize migrants to receive preclearance before crossing the border, officials said the administration would increase the number of appointments it books through the CBP One app that immigrants are now expected to use to set up asylum hearings. They added that State and DHS are “in discussions with other countries in the region” to expand the new regional processing center initiative.
Mayorkas said all of those “emerging requirements” across DHS required the department to move money around its accounts. He lamented that Congress in the fiscal 2023 omnibus only provided $2.7 billion of the $4.9 billion the administration had asked for to address the unusually high number of encounters at the border and expected end of Title 42 and said his reprogramming notification to Congress should not be read as having addressed the shortfall.
“This reprogramming of existing funds will not meet our longer term needs for securing our border and enforcing our laws,” Mayorkas said. He added that while the expected increase in border crossings will strain department resources, the administration has been preparing for the moment for one-and-a-half years and will be ready to meet the challenge.