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Immigration & Asylum: Policy Briefing

Immigration & Asylum

The Biden Plan for Immigration and Asylum Reform

UPDATED July 9, 2021

Immigration policy is one of the most divisive topics domestically and was a key pillar in both President Biden’s and former President Trump’s campaign platforms. The immigration debate can be divided broadly into issues surrounding legal and illegal immigration into the U.S., and the migration of asylum seekers fleeing unstable regions in hopes of being admitted into the U.S. as refugees. (“Refugee” is a legal designation granting people who are fleeing persecution in their home countries the right to international protection once their applications for asylum have been approved.) The Biden administration enters office promising to reverse course on the previous administration’s most restrictive immigration policies and has been doing so predominantly through executive order—following a Trump administration that signed over 400 executive orders on immigration. As of June 2021, Biden has already signed thirteen executive orders on immigration policy, the majority of which directly reverse the Trump administration’s policies—including ending funding the Mexico border wall, preserving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), establishing a family reunification task force, and ending entry bans enacted on a range of countries predominantly in the Middle East and Africa.

In an effort to deter the arrival of new immigrants and refugees, the Trump administration enhanced entry requirements and border security measures, granted state and local governments increased discretion on enforcing federal immigration laws, lowered the threshold for annual refugee admittances, and implemented the controversial family separation policy. In his campaign platform, Biden articulated a fundamentally different approach to immigration, citing the $2 trillion in economic benefits that foreign-born workers produce in the U.S. annually and expressing a desire to welcome and integrate immigrants into U.S. communities. He also promised a path to citizenship for 11 million currently undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S., ordered a 100-day moratorium on deportations (which was blocked by a federal judge in February 2021), and proposed reforms to the work visa system. While Trump sought to decrease legal immigration into the U.S. by placing limits on work visas for both low-skilled and high-skilled labor, Biden has proposed increasing the annual cap of 140,000 employment-based visas awarded and issuing green cards to Ph.D. graduates in STEM fields upon graduation.

The Trump Administration Admitted a Historically Low Number of Refugees

Since the start of the Clinton administration, the ceiling for U.S. refugees’ admittances has steadily declined. It reached its lowest historical level ever in 2020, when the Trump administration admitted just 11,841 refugees.

U.S. Annual Refugee Ceiling, 1993-2020

  • February 26, 1993 – Terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center leads the Clinton Administration to examine asylum policies.
  • April 1, 1997 – Clinton enacts the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act imposing stricter asylum standards.
  • September 11, 2001 – Terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center lead to a drop off in refugee admissions.
  • January 27, 2017 – Trump lowers admissions by more than half through executive order after Obama initially set the FY17 ceiling at 110K.

Source: Migration Policy Institute

Central to the Biden administration’s immigration agenda is reforming the asylum system process and tackling issues related to forced migration from Central America. Biden has committed to clearing the current backlog on asylum applications by doubling the number of immigration judges, court staff, and interpreters. He originally proposed raising the annual limit on admitted refugees from 15,000 to 125,000—the highest level since 1993. He has since wavered on this proposal, initially opting to keep the 2021 refugee ceiling at 15,000 in April 2021 before reconsidering amid widespread backlash and raising the annual cap to 62,500 in May. Even with the raised limit, the current number still falls short of Biden’s campaign promise and instead matches what the Department of State proposed to Congress in February 2021. Biden is also ending the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP or more commonly known as “Remain in Mexico”) program, which forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while U.S. courts determined their eligibility. In June 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland reversed a Trump-era doctrine excluding migrants who are escaping domestic abuse and gang violence from the asylum process.In contrast to the Trump administration—which decreased foreign aid to Central America—the Biden administration has announced a comprehensive four-year, $4 billion strategy for the region that seeks to address the root causes of forced migration and promote regional development. Implementing this plan is already clashing with efforts to combat regional corruption, which included releasing the names of sixteen Northern Triangle officials accused of corruption in May 2021, and complicating diplomatic relations between the Biden administration and Northern Triangle governments. Biden’s key appointees thus far are aligned with this shift in approach and have signaled their intent to reform domestic immigration policies, restore and strengthen relationships with Latin American countries, and increase foreign aid and multilateral engagement. Biden tapped Alejandro Mayorkas to head the Department of Homeland Security and Samantha Power to serve as the head of USAID. Given their backgrounds, both picks indicate a strong departure from Trump’s immigration policies and a shift toward prioritizing naturalization for existing immigrant communities and a focus on addressing the root causes of forced migration through foreign aid and investment instead of stricter border policies and security.

President Biden’s Executive Orders on Immigration
Immigration Enforcement
U.S-Mexico Border Policies
Legal Immigration Reform

Key Challenges for the Biden Administration

Humanitarian crises worsening in regions generating refugees (Northern Triangle, Myanmar, Syria, Afghanistan). In 2019, the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) accounted for nearly 50 percent of defensive asylum applicants in the U.S., generating an estimated 500,000 refugees globally and another 250,000 internally displaced people. As the pandemic continues into 2021, migrants are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in record numbers—in April 2021, a record 112,000 single adult migrants arriving predominantly from the Northern Triangle were taken into custody. This number is likely to remain high as lockdowns across Central America have augmented gang power over critical supplies, left significant portions of the population unemployed, and increased violence against women. In May 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris made her debut visit abroad to Central America to promote efforts to combat corruption and promote economic well-being to encourage would-be migrants to remain. During a speech in Guatemala, Harris was adamant that the administration seeks to stem illegal migration, stating plainly to migrants: “Do not come.”

In other hotspots, such as Myanmar, Syria, and Afghanistan, the situation is similarly deteriorating. Myanmar is responsible for the most officially designated refugee arrivals into the U.S. overall since 2000, totaling nearly 180,000 people before the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government in Myanmar earlier this year. Syrian arrivals have spiked in recent years (particularly from 2014 to 2016) due to the ongoing civil war, which has left an estimated 11 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Trump had singled them out for “extreme vetting” measures meant to limit new arrivals. Highlighting the multidimensional aspects of the Syrian conflict and interconnected nature of his foreign policy actions, Biden’s first military action as president was an airstrike in Syria. Finally, the imminent U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan could potentially amplify fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan government, exacerbating conditions in one of the countries already generating one of the highest numbers of refugees in world. The U.S. is now preparing to relocate up to 100,000 Afghans, many of whom have now become Taliban targets after assisting the U.S. occupation, to the U.S. territory of Guam.

Repairing the strained U.S.-Mexico relationship is crucial for implementing comprehensive immigration reform and maintaining border security. The Biden administration faces an uphill battle in re-orienting its relationship with Mexico after the U.S. and Mexico developed a stable working relationship under the Trump administration. Under Trump, Mexico was willing to work closely with the U.S. on stemming immigration to the U.S. from Mexico and renegotiating NAFTA, while Trump largely declined to intervene in Mexico’s domestic issues. This amicable relationship could potentially change under the Biden administration. The Biden administration’s relationship with Mexico is already off to a rocky start. Andres Manuel López Obrador was among the last world leaders to acknowledge President Biden’s electoral college victory, signed legislation in December 2020 limiting U.S. narcotic agents’ ability to operate in the country, and offered WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum in January 2021. Convincing the AMLO administration to work toward common immigration goals may prove difficult if the Biden administration seeks to push Mexico on other agenda items, such as improving environmental standards or enforcing the stricter labor standards laid out in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

COVID-19 poses new challenges for fragile states and refugee arrivals. More than one-third of countries’ national vaccination plans include no measures to address vaccinating the world’s 26 million refugees. Continual efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19, and fear of new strains of the virus entering the U.S., could complicate Biden’s plans to increase refugee admittances until the end of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has already released guidelines on vaccination for inbound refugees, but there are a number of complicating factors. The asylum process in the U.S. takes between six months and several years, and despite the Biden administration’s stated commitment to speeding up processing times, the backlog of applications left from the Trump administration will leave long wait times for many applicants. As applications are being processed, many refugees and asylum seekers are stranded in crowded camps with unsanitary conditions, both in U.S. detention centers and transit countries, where COVID-19 can easily spread and treatment options are severely limited. Misinformation and vaccine refusal pose further challenges as nearly one-third of the U.S. population has indicated that it would refuse a vaccine. This problem is equally present in refugee and immigrant populations, where vaccine skepticism is often driven by fears of becoming test experiment subjects or targets of forced sterilization.