President Joe Biden has made some strong claims over the past few days about shutting down the U.S.-Mexico border as he tries to salvage a border deal in Congress that would also unlock money for Ukraine.
The deal had been in the works for months and seemed to be nearing completion in the Senate before it began to fall apart, largely because Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump doesn’t want it to happen.
“A bipartisan bill would be good for America and help fix our broken immigration system and allow speedy access for those who deserve to be here, and Congress needs to get it done,” Biden said over the weekend. “It’ll also give me as president, the emergency authority to shut down the border until it could get back under control. If that bill were the law today, I’d shut down the border right now and fix it quickly.”
A look at what Biden meant, and the political and policy considerations at play:
WHERE IS BIDEN’S TOUGH TALK COMING FROM?
Biden wants continued funding for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion. Senate Republicans had initially said they would not consider more money for Kyiv unless it was combined with a deal to manage the border.
As the talks have progressed, Biden has come to embrace efforts to reach a bipartisan border security deal after years of gridlock on overhauling the immigration system. But his statement that he would shut down the border “right now” if Congress passed the proposed deal is more about politics than policy.
He is seeking to disarm criticism of his handling of migration at the border as immigration becomes an increasing matter of concern to Americans in the leadup to the presidential election.
WOULD THE BORDER REALLY SHUT DOWN UNDER THE DEAL?
No. Trade would continue, people who are citizens and legal residents could continue to go back and forth.
Biden is referencing an expulsion authority being negotiated by the lawmakers that would automatically kick in on days when illegal crossings reached more than 5,000 over a five-day average across the Southern border, which is currently seeing as many as 10,000 crossings per day. The authority shuts down asylum screenings for those who cross illegally. Migrants could still apply at ports of entry until crossings dipped below 3,750 per day. But these are estimates, the final tally hasn’t been ironed out.
There’s also an effort to change how asylum cases are processed. Right now, it takes several years for a case to be resolved and in the meantime, many migrants are released into the country to wait. Republicans see that as one reason that additional migrants are motivated to come to the U.S.
The goal would be to shrink the resolution time to six months. It would also raise the standards for which migrants can apply for asylum in the first place. The standard right now is broad by design so that potential asylum seekers aren’t left out, but critics argue the system is being abused.
DIDN’T TRUMP ALSO THREATEN TO SHUT DOWN THE BORDER?
Yes. Trump vowed to “shut down” the U.S-Mexico border entirely — including to trade and traffic — in an effort to force Mexico to do more to stem the flow of migrants. He didn’t follow through, though. But the talk was heavily criticized by Democrats who said it was draconian and xenophobic. The closest Trump came was during the pandemic, when he used emergency authorities to severely limit asylum. But trade and traffic still continued.
The recent echoes of the former president by Biden, who had long argued that Trump’s border policies were inhumane, reflect the growing public concern about illegal migration. But Biden’s stance threatens to alienate progressives who already believe he has shifted too far right on border policies.
DOES BIDEN ALREADY HAVE AUTHORITY TO SHUT DOWN THE BORDER?
House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Trump ally and critic of the proposed deal, has argued that presidents already have enough authority to stop illegal border crossings. Biden could, in theory, strongly limit asylum claims and restrict crossings, but the effort would be almost certainly be challenged in court and would be far more likely to be blocked or curtailed dramatically without a congressional law backing the new changes.
“Congress needs to act,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “They must act. Speaker Johnson and House Republicans should provide the administration with the policy changes and funding needed.”
WHAT IS THE OUTLOOK FOR THE PROPOSED DEAL?
Prospects are dim.
A core group of senators negotiating the deal had hoped to release detailed text this week, but conservatives already say the measures do not go far enough to limit immigration.
Johnson, R-La., on Friday sent a letter to colleagues that aligns him with hardline conservatives determined to sink the compromise. The speaker said the legislation would have been “dead on arrival in the House” if leaked reports about it were true.
As top Senate negotiator, James Lankford, R-Okla, said on “Fox News Sunday,” that after months of pushing on border security and clamoring for a deal tied to Ukraine aid, “when we’re finally getting to the end,” Republicans seem to be saying; “‘Oh, just kidding, I actually don’t want a change in law because of the presidential election year.'”
Trump is loath to give a win to Biden on an issue that animated the Republican’s successful 2016 campaign and that he wants to use as he seeks to return to the White House.
He said Saturday: “I’ll fight it all the way. A lot of the senators are trying to say, respectfully, they’re blaming it on me. I say, that’s okay. Please blame it on me. Please.”
WHAT HAPPENED TO BIDEN’S BORDER EFFORTS SO FAR?
Biden’s embrace of the congressional framework points to how the administration’s efforts to enact a broader immigration overhaul have been stymied.
On his first day in office, Biden sent a comprehensive immigration proposal to Congress and signed more executive orders than Trump. Since then, he has taken more than 500 executive actions, according to a tally by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
His administration’s approach has been to pair new humanitarian pathways for migrants with a crackdown at the border in an effort to discourage migrants from making the dangerous journey to the U.S.-Mexico border on foot and instead travel by plane with a sponsor. Some policies have been successful, but the number of crossings has continued to rise. He’s also sought to make the issue more regional, using his foreign policy experience to broker agreements with other nations.
Biden’s aides and allies see the asylum changes as part of the crackdown effort and that’s in part why they have been receptive to the proposals. But they have resisted efforts to take away the president’s ability to grant “humanitarian parole” — to allow migrants into the U.S. for special cases during emergencies or global unrest.