Migration: Biden tightens US asylum rules for border with Mexico

A few months before the presidential election in the USA, incumbent Biden wants to curb irregular immigration with new border regulations. Headwinds come promptly and from various directions.

In the middle of the election campaign, US President Joe Biden is tightening the rules for migrants who enter the USA illegally from Mexico. The measures, which came into force on Wednesday night (local time), allow the authorities to deport people who have entered the country irregularly, sometimes without processing their asylum applications. Exceptions only apply in a few cases. On Tuesday, the White House published a corresponding presidential decree. “I am doing what the Republicans in Congress are refusing to do: I am taking the necessary steps to secure our border,” said the Democrat. The UN refugee agency UNHCR criticized the regulation as an undermining of the fundamental right to asylum. US civil rights activists have announced legal action.

The new rule applies as soon as the average number of illegal border crossings from Mexico exceeds 2,500 per day in a week. It will be lifted when this number falls below 1,500 again. US media reported, citing the authorities, that there are currently over 4,000 per day. Since the beginning of the fiscal year in October, there have been around 1.5 million “irregular encounters” at the southern border – that is, cases in which people were arrested – usually briefly – or deported directly. The number of cases was thus higher than at the same time in previous years – and in December 2023 it was even higher than ever in a single month. The authorities can hardly keep up with processing asylum applications. In addition, there is a lack of accommodation and other resources for the arrivals.

Critics accuse Biden of having lost control of protecting the southern border. The president's decree now provides that people who cross the border illegally can be deported more quickly. Those who apply for asylum will now be subject to stricter screening and will have to have, among other things, a “credible fear” of persecution or torture in their home country. Those affected will then be granted protection, but not under the same standards as other asylum seekers. On the other hand, those who present themselves regularly, for example by requesting an appointment from outside the USA using a specially set up app, will be given a fair chance – at least that is how the government presents it.

Biden accuses Trump of cynicism

Biden accused former President Donald Trump, who is seeking to defeat him in the November presidential election, of torpedoing urgently needed legislation in Congress in order to gain an advantage in the election campaign. “This is an extremely cynical political move and fails the American people, who are not expecting us to weaponize the border, but to fix it,” Biden said. He would have preferred bipartisan cooperation to better staff and fund the relevant authorities through appropriate legislation. “But the Republicans have left me no other choice.”

Exceptions to Biden's decree will apply to unaccompanied children, seriously ill people and victims of human trafficking. All others will be returned either to Mexico or to their respective countries of origin. Previously, most asylum seekers were generally allowed to stay in the country until a court decision was made – which often takes years due to overburdened authorities.

Doubts about feasibility and criticism from both sides

Because the newly set threshold was exceeded, the measures came into force immediately at midnight. However, a number of questions about the feasibility of the decree remained unanswered. For example, the USA relies on Mexico for deportations. There are doubts as to whether the money currently approved is sufficient for the additional work of the border guards – Congress would have to approve further federal aid. And the legal ground could be shaky: the civil rights organization ACLU has already announced that it will file a lawsuit.

The route through Mexico is chosen by many people who are fleeing poverty, violence and political crises in their homeland and hoping for a better life in the USA. According to the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM), it is the deadliest land migration route in the world. Hundreds die every year on the strenuous and dangerous journey north, for example from lack of water and heat stroke. The number of unreported cases is significantly higher.

Biden also received criticism from within his own party. Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal spoke of a “dangerous step in the wrong direction.” The right to apply for asylum is enshrined in US law and the country's international treaty obligations.

The United Nations also emphasized the human right to asylum. “Any person who claims to have a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin should have access to safe territory and have that claim verified before being deported or expelled,” said UN spokeswoman Florencia Soto Nino in New York.

In a statement, the UN refugee agency UNHCR expressed “deep concern” about the decree and called on the US to reconsider the new rules “which undermine the fundamental right to asylum.” The UNHCR is aware that the high number of migrants poses a challenge for the US. “We remain committed to supporting the US in urgently needed comprehensive reform efforts, including improving the fairness, quality and efficiency of its border protection and asylum system.”

Migration as a permanent political issue

The Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, described the decree as a “political stunt” in an election year. It does not provide for new money for border protection or deportations of those who are already in the USA illegally.

Reforming immigration laws has long been a hot topic in the US, but the controversial issue is playing a particularly big role in the presidential election campaign. In his speech on Tuesday, Biden tried to distance himself from the comparatively aggressive rhetoric of his rival Trump, who has described migration to the US as an “invasion”. “I will never demonize immigrants,” Biden stressed. “I will never say that they poison the blood of a country.”