Biden issues order limiting asylum seekers from crossing US-Mexico border

Joe Biden on Tuesday signed an executive order that will temporarily shut down the US-Mexico border to asylum seekers attempting to cross between lawful ports of entry, when a daily threshold of crossings has been exceeded.

The order will take effect immediately, senior administration officials said on a press call. Those seeking asylum will be held to a much more rigorous standard for establishing credible fear of returning to their home country, although certain groups – including human trafficking victims and unaccompanied children – would be excluded from the ban.

Delivering remarks at the White House alongside mayors of border towns, Biden said congressional Republicans had left him with “no choice” but to take unilateral action after they blocked a bipartisan border security bill earlier this year.

“So today, I’m moving past Republican obstruction and using the executive authority that’s available to me as president to do what I can on my own to address the border,” Biden said. “Doing nothing is not an option. We have to act.”

The move comes amid rising public concern over the number of people crossing into the US, with polls showing a majority of Americans dissatisfied with the president’s handling of the border. The White House has been under immense pressure from Republicans and some Democrats to reduce the number of people arriving at the southern border.

Under the executive order, the administration would shut down asylum requests to the US-Mexico border once the number of daily encounters has reached 2,500 between legal ports of entry, which regularly occurs now. The border would re-open two weeks after that figure falls below a daily average of 1,500 for seven consecutive days.

People who make appointments with border officials using the Customs and Border Protection app would also be exempt, though advocates emphasize that scheduling one can take months.

The directive is not expected to hinder other border activity, such as trade or traffic.

The measure relies on the same legal framework adopted by Donald Trump to restrict unlawful crossings in 2018, but was blocked by a federal court. At the time, Democrats assailed Trump’s border policies as draconian and rooted in xenophobia. The announcement triggered immediate threats of legal challenges, as the American Civil Liberties Union said it would sue the administration over the new policy.

“We intend to challenge this order in court. It was illegal when Trump did it, and it is no less illegal now,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

Many progressive and Hispanic lawmakers expressed alarm at the sweep of the order, the most aggressive border move taken by the administration so far.

Senator Alex Padilla, the Democratic chair of the Senate judiciary subcommittee on immigration, citizenship and border safety, said in a statement: “By reviving Trump’s asylum ban, President Biden has undermined American values and abandoned our nation’s obligations to provide people fleeing persecution, violence, and authoritarianism with an opportunity to seek refuge in the US.”

But Biden and his advisers fiercely rejected comparisons between the new measure and the severe immigration policies enacted during Trump’s presidency.

“I believe that immigration has always been the lifeblood of America. We’re constantly renewed by an infusion of people and new talent,” Biden said. “The Statue of Liberty is not some relic of American history. It stands for who we are as the United States. So I will never demonize immigrants. I will never refer to immigrants as a poisoning the blood of a country. Further, I’ll never separate children from their families at the border.”

The United Nations issued a statement saying it was “profoundly concerned” by the new restrictions and urged the US government to reconsider its actions. “The new measures will deny access to asylum for many individuals who are in need of international protection, and who may now find themselves without a viable option for seeking safety and even at risk of refoulement,” meaning being sent back across the border, the statement read.

“Any person who claims to have a well-founded fear of being persecuted in their country of origin must have access to safe territory and have this claim assessed before being subject to deportation or removal. We call on the United States to uphold its international obligations and urge the government to reconsider restrictions that undermine the fundamental right to seek asylum.”

Although the policy sparked intense criticism among many progressives, a number of centrist Democrats rushed to Biden’s defense. Leaders of the centrist New Democrat Coalition said they were “encouraged” by Biden’s order, although they emphasized the need for Congress to take additional action.

“With today’s announcement, President Biden is taking decisive, commonsense action to restore order at the southern border at a time when congressional Republicans continue to use it as a political football,” the leaders said.

At the San Ysidro port of entry, the border crossing between Tijuana and southern California, it was seemingly business as usual on both sides of the border shortly after the executive order was announced.

The corridor is one of the busiest land crossings in the world, and the San Diego sector has seen a surge in asylum seekers over the last few months. But on the US side of the border this week, the scene was quiet.

On Tuesday afternoon, families and individuals walked calmly across the bridge that connects the two countries. Red trolleys at the San Ysidro transit center waited to take passengers to other cities in southern California, and groups of people filtered in and out of the small shops near the border, exchanging cash at money-exchange stores and ordering food at McDonald’s.

On the Tijuana side, cars waiting to enter the US were lined up as far as the eye could see, but moved forward incrementally. Men and women hawked churros, candy and Mexico-themed trinkets to drivers, weaving in between the idling cars.

Some hadn’t heard of the Biden administration’s new rules, while others expressed mixed feelings over the decision.

Abel Walser, a 26-year-old from Oceanside who has Mexican heritage, was crossing the bridge that funnels into the US with a friend around noon. On one hand, “this country was built to be a melting pot”, he said, adding that he knows people who initially came to the US illegally, but have since endured the extremely difficult, years-long process to become an American citizen. On the other hand, immigration has vastly increased, he said.

Meanwhile, Erika Palomo was passing through the palm tree-lined transit center on her way back to the Mexico side. She crosses through the border checkpoint almost every day, either for work or to visit relatives, and has seen a big increase in the number of people hoping to get into the US in the past year.

Related: What the US asylum process is really like, in applicants’ own words: ‘I’ve waited 10 years’

“I have seen all the people trying to cross and get better opportunities, especially kids,” she said. “It’s a lot of people.” Mothers and children should be given extra consideration when it comes to asylum, she added.

Immigration and border policy are at the heart of Republicans’ 2024 campaign message, with Trump bashing Biden as “weak” and vowing to unleash the biggest mass deportation of undocumented immigrants in US history should he win re-election in November.

Trump’s campaign quickly weighed in on news of the order, dismissing the policy as insufficient. Karoline Leavitt, the Trump campaign press secretary, said in a statement: “If Joe Biden truly wanted to shut down the border, he could do so with a swipe of the same pen, but he never will because he is controlled by radical left Democrats who seek to destroy America.”

The action comes months after Senate Republicans, at Trump’s behest, voted down a bipartisan border security deal. Trump, wary of handing Biden a political victory on his signature issue, had announced his opposition to the bill and encouraged Republicans to block its advancement.

The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, last month held another vote on the border package, which included measures Republicans have been clamoring for, including a far-reaching clampdown on the number of people allowed to claim asylum, while providing billions to the Department of Homeland Security to hire more border officers and immigration judges. The measure failed, as expected, but Democrats hoped the vote would underscore Republican resistance to a border deal they helped negotiate.

Biden made clear on Tuesday that he does not view the new order as a replacement for congressional action, and he again called on Republicans to work with Democrats to improve the US immigration system.

“Frankly, I would have preferred to address this issue through bipartisan legislation,” Biden said. “Let’s fix the problem and stop fighting about it. I’m doing my part. We’re doing our part. Congressional Republicans should do their part.”

  • This article was amended on 4 June 2024 to show that Biden’s executive order will limit the number of asylum seekers crossing the border, not to prevent all of them from crossing it.