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77 Democrats urge Biden to scrap new asylum limits, highlighting divide on border policy

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Washington — Nearly 80 Democratic lawmakers in Congress implored President Biden on Thursday to scrap plans to limit asylum access and eligibility along the southern border, highlighting intra-party divides over how the U.S. should manage a historic migration crisis.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration unveiled its most comprehensive plan yet to deter illegal border crossings. It announced that migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela would face expulsion to Mexico under a Trump-era public health order known as Title 42 if they enter the U.S. unlawfully. It also extended legal migration opportunities to migrants with U.S. sponsors and vulnerable asylum-seekers.

The measures have led to a sharp drop in unlawful entries along the southern border. On Wednesday, the administration credited the strategy with a 97% drop in the number of migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela entering U.S. border custody per day. 

But the 77 Democrats in the House and Senate who penned the letter to Mr. Biden said the measures undermined U.S. asylum law, which allows migrants on U.S. soil to request humanitarian protection and to secure it if they prove they are fleeing persecution on certain grounds.

"We believe that your administration can and must continue to expand legal pathways for migrants and refugees into the United States — without further dismantling the right to seek asylum at our border," the lawmakers wrote. "This right is a pillar of the post-war international order to which the United States has committed itself."

The Democratic lawmakers praised the program the Biden administration set up to allow American citizens and others with legal status in the U.S. to sponsor the arrival of Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans. But they said the deterrence component of Mr. Biden's strategy relied on Trump administration policies.

Specifically, the lawmakers denounced the administration's decision to expand Title 42, as migrants from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua were previously not subject to the policy. They also urged the administration to reverse course on a proposal that would disqualify migrants from asylum if they fail to seek refuge in third countries en route to the U.S., a rule the Trump administration also sought to enact. 

"No matter how many Trump policies the Biden administration resurrects, Republicans will continue to obstruct any effort to actually reform our border processing and modernize our immigration system," New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who led the letter to Mr. Biden alongside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said during a press conference Thursday. 

Immigration and Border Policy Presser
Sen. Bob Menendez speaks during a news conference outside the Capitol on Thursday, January 26, 2023. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The Biden administration has rebuffed accusations that it's embracing border policies proposed by the Trump administration. 

Officials have cited the Supreme Court's order in late December that blocked the termination of Title 42, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has conceded is no longer justified on public health grounds. They've also noted the public will be allowed to comment on the proposed asylum restriction and that the regulation would contain humanitarian exemptions.

The letter to Mr. Biden was not signed by Democratic leaders in the Senate and House, who have been generally supportive of the administration's border strategy.

On Thursday, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said Mr. Biden was seeking to address U.S. border and immigration policy in "a forward-looking way."

"I haven't seen the letter but we look forward to, as Democrats and as members of Congress, having a healthy discussion about how do we deal with the complexity of issues connected to comprehensive immigration reform and making sure we have a safe, secure and strong border," Jeffries said.

Beyond the criticism from some of his Democratic allies, Mr. Biden's border strategy has also continued to garner strong Republican push back, even with the heightened enforcement measures. Earlier this week, 20 Republican-led states led by Texas asked a federal judge to halt the sponsorship policy for migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela, arguing that the program violates U.S. immigration law.

On a call with reporters Wednesday, administration officials said the states' lawsuit could undermine their stated objective of reducing illegal migration, since Mexico could "revisit" its decision to accept migrants expelled from the U.S. if the U.S. could not uphold its commitment to accept up to 30,000 migrants with sponsors each month.

"These expanded border enforcement measures are working," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Wednesday. "It is incomprehensible that some states who stand to benefit from these highly effective enforcement measures are seeking to block them and cause more irregular migration at our southern border."

Daily encounters of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border have dropped by over 40% from December, when they soared to a record high. As of earlier this week, U.S. border officials were averaging 115 daily encounters with migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela — a 97% drop from 3,367 in early December.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former Department of Homeland Security immigration official under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, said it's too soon for the administration to "claim victory," arguing that additional data is needed to better understand whether the measures will reduce border arrivals in the long-term.

Cardinal Brown noted the new policies only apply to four nationalities and exclude migrants from Colombia, Ecuador and other countries that have seen record numbers of their citizens trek to the U.S. border. Some migrants may also try to evade border agents to avoid being expelled to Mexico, she added. 

"There are criminal smuggling organizations involved that have incentives to deliver on promises they gave people to get into the country," Cardinal Brown said. "People that are desperate to get into the United States will find a way to get into the United States."

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