Biden once rejected Trump's migrant policies. Now his ideas echo them

Eric Martin, Patricia Laya and Maya Averbuch, Bloomberg News on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden came into office in 2021 vowing to undo Donald Trump’s harsh policies on the U.S.’s southern border and work with governments across Central America to reduce the motivations for their citizens to head north.

Tapping decades of experience with the region, Biden rebuilt relationships with efforts to boost economic cooperation, not just focus on keeping migrants out. He courted new leaders, alienating some old ones.

None of it was enough.

Record flows of migrants — including hundreds of thousands from countries in South America that the Biden administration hadn’t included in its aid efforts — have overwhelmed the system, turning the issue into an existential threat to the president’s hopes of reelection. With Congress stonewalling a long-overdue overhaul, Biden last week said his administration may further restrict migrants’ ability to claim asylum, echoing some of the Trump-era policies that he had previously rejected.

“The administration hoped it would have both the support of Congress on funding and time to implement that root-causes strategy, and that wasn’t the case,” said Roberta Jacobson, a longtime diplomat who helped lead Biden’s border policy in the first months of the administration.

“You suddenly had a composition of countries where migrants were coming from that went way beyond” the Central American nations the administration had targeted, she added.


Biden administration officials argue there was no way to anticipate the extraordinary wave of migration that’s engulfed the world since the pandemic, with tens of thousands turning up at the border from as far away as China and Russia. They blame Congress for failing to approve its $4 billion aid plan for the region or deliver on any of the reforms needed to streamline the process of handling the huge numbers of people seeking to move to the U.S. The strong American economy has also drawn migrants looking for work and multinational criminal networks have grown to feed the flow.

The White House also points to data from the first quarter of this year, showing a decline — of almost 30%, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection — in the number of irregular migrants at the border compared to the previous three months.

Critics argue the Biden administration has failed to follow through on some early initiatives aimed at taking the pressure off the border. Instead, Biden’s team has increasingly resorted to leaning on partners in Latin America to turn the migrants around. Some allies felt abandoned. Ambitious gambles like a deal to ease sanctions on the repressive regime in Venezuela— the no. 2 source of migrants — stumbled. With poverty and instability spreading across the region, there’s little indication the flow will slow.

The first year of Biden’s term felt like it was a series of good plans getting halted, with frequent leadership changes on the issue, according to a former official who asked for anonymity.


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