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J. Kevin ApplebyMarch 20, 2023
Migrants wait to be processed after crossing the border on Jan. 6, 2023, near Yuma, Ariz. The Biden administration says it will generally deny asylum to migrants who show up at the U.S. southern border without first seeking protection in a country they passed through. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)Migrants wait to be processed after crossing the border on Jan. 6, 2023, near Yuma, Ariz. The Biden administration says it will generally deny asylum to migrants who show up at the U.S. southern border without first seeking protection in a country they passed through. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

During the 2020 campaign, presidential candidate Joe Biden called for immigration reform and a restoration of basic rights for immigrants, including the right to asylum and family unity. He offered his platform as a clear alternative to then-President Trump’s immigration policies, which featured the separation of children from their parents, the prosecution and criminalization of border crossers, and the immediate return of asylum seekers to Mexico. One of his first acts in office was to propose a comprehensive immigration reform bill; he also introduced an aid package to address the root causes of migration, especially from the Northern Triangle of Central America.

More than halfway into his term, however, President Biden has switched course on his campaign promises and has returned to some of the enforcement and deterrence policies that characterized the Trump administration.

In January, the Biden administration announced the application of Title 42—the obscure health regulation first deployed by Mr. Trump in order to turn back asylum seekers at the border during the Covid-19 pandemic—to vulnerable and persecuted populations such as Venezuelans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Cubans.

The use of Title 42 had its intended effect: It decreased the number of asylum seekers from Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba arriving at the southern border by 97 percent.

The use of Title 42 had its intended effect: It decreased the number of asylum seekers from those four countries arriving at the southern border by 97 percent. More recently, the administration doubled down on the denial of asylum at our southern border by proposing to rewrite and reinstate another policy that had been approved by Mr. Trump before being struck down by the courts. On Feb. 21, the Department of Homeland Security proposed a rule that would deny asylum, with few exceptions, to any individual who did not attempt to garner legal protection in a country through which they traveled en route to the United States. This rule ignores the reality that “transit countries” such as Mexico have very limited asylum systems, so many immigration advocates have labeled the proposed rule as a de facto “asylum ban.”

Finally, recent media reports have revealed that the Biden administration is considering the detention of families, a practice Mr. Biden promised to end during the campaign. Many Americans should still remember the disturbing images of children being held in tiny cells, with little to eat and nowhere to sleep.

Why has Mr. Biden changed course in such a dramatic fashion, even garnering strong opposition from within his own party? In a word, politics. Polls show that the American public, while supporting positive reform of the immigration system, also wants better control of the borders. As we have seen with past Democratic administrations, the ability of mostly conservative Republicans to demagogue the immigration issue has forced Democrats to abandon our nation’s history as a safe haven for the persecuted. President Obama, for example, was known as the “deporter-in-chief,” while in 1996 President Clinton signed legislation that eviscerated due process rights for immigrants.

Why has Mr. Biden changed course in such a dramatic fashion, even garnering strong opposition from within his own party? In a word, politics.

Still, there is no moral equivalency between Democrats and most Republicans on immigration. In fact, the Biden administration has implemented a lot of positive immigration policies, including the liberal use of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to protect displaced nationalities and new rules safeguarding the rights of migrants in the workplace. And should he be re-elected, Mr. Biden likely will make another attempt to pass immigration reform legislation.

In contrast, since the last immigration compromise bill died in 2014, the Grand Old Party has used immigration—and, specifically, the border—as a cudgel to bludgeon the Democrats politically. Instead of coming to the table to find a bipartisan solution to the problem, many (though not all) Republicans would rather use it as a battle cry to pander to their right-wing constituencies. Instead of standing up to the Republicans, past and current Democratic administrations have failed to adequately respond to their anti-immigrant rhetoric.

While the church supports the right of a sovereign nation to control its border, it equally supports an individual’s right to migrate and seek protection from persecution.

What is most disappointing is that Mr. Biden, a Catholic, should know better. As an admirer of Pope Francis, he should know that the pontiff opposes such policies. While the church supports the right of a sovereign nation to control its border, it equally supports an individual’s right to migrate and seek protection from persecution. Pope Francis has been powerfully clear on this point—and so have his predecessors.

Instead of ignoring the pope and other Catholic voices on this issue—not to mention many in his party—Mr. Biden should work with the church to come up with lasting solutions. His recent meeting with Bishop Mark Seitz, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, in El Paso, Tex., was a good start.

It is well known that President Biden and the U.S. bishops have disagreements over several moral issues, particularly abortion. It should not prevent them from working on another one in which they can find common ground.

[Related: “Bishop Seitz on Biden’s new asylum policy: Death cannot be the cost of our immigration laws”]

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