Politics

How Biden’s Promises to Reverse Trump’s Immigration Policies Crumbled


Immigration was dead simple when Joseph R. Biden Jr. was campaigning for president: It was an easy way to attack Donald J. Trump as a racist, and it helped to rally Democrats with the promise of a more humane border policy.

Nothing worked better than Mr. Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” that Mr. Trump was building along the southern border. Its existence was as much a metaphor for the polarization inside America as it was a largely ineffective barrier against foreigners fleeing to the United States from Central America.

“There will not be,” Mr. Biden proclaimed as he campaigned against Mr. Trump in the summer of 2020, “another foot of wall constructed.”

But a massive surge of migration in the Western Hemisphere has scrambled the dynamics of an issue that has bedeviled presidents for decades, and radically reshaped the political pressures on Mr. Biden and his administration. Instead of becoming the president who quickly reversed his predecessor’s policies, Mr. Biden has repeatedly tried to curtail the migration of a record number of people — and the political fallout that has created — by embracing, or at least tolerating, some of Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant approaches.

Even, it turns out, the wall.

On Thursday, Biden administration officials formally sought to waive environmental regulations to allow construction of 20 additional miles of border wall in a part of Texas that is inundated by illegal migration. The move was a stunning reversal on a political and moral issue that had once galvanized Mr. Biden and Democrats like no other.

The funds for the wall had been approved by Congress during Mr. Trump’s tenure, and on Friday, the president said he had no power to block their use.

“The wall thing?” Mr. Biden asked reporters on Friday. “Yeah. Well, I was told that I had no choice — that I, you know, Congress passes legislation to build something, whether it’s an aircraft carrier wall or provide for a tax cut. I can’t say, ‘I don’t like it. I’m not going to do it.’”

White House officials said that they tried for years, without success, to get Congress to redirect the wall money to other border priorities. And they said Mr. Biden’s lawyers had advised that the only way to get around the Impoundment Act, which requires the president to spend money as Congress directs, was to file a lawsuit. The administration chose not to do so.

Eric Adams, the Democratic mayor of New York, has blamed the administration for a situation that he says could destroy his city. J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic governor of Illinois and an ally of Mr. Biden, wrote this week in a letter to the president that a “lack of intervention and coordination” by Mr. Biden’s government at the border “has created an untenable situation for Illinois.”

In comments to reporters at an event opposing book banning, Mr. Pritzker said that he had “spoken with the White House since, over the weekend and the letter, to make sure that they heard us.”

The moment underscores the new reality for the president as he prepares to campaign for a second term. His handling of immigration has become one of his biggest potential liabilities, with polls showing deep dissatisfaction among voters about how he deals with the new arrivals. With record numbers of migrants streaming across the border, he can no longer portray it in the simple terms he did four years ago.

Since taking office, Mr. Biden has tried to balance his stated desire for a more humane approach with strict enforcement that aides believe is critical to ensure that migrants do not believe the border is open to anyone.

In a notice published in the Federal Register on Thursday, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, said that easing environmental and other laws was necessary to expedite construction of sections of a border wall in South Texas, where thousands of migrants have been crossing the Rio Grande daily to reach U.S. soil.

“There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States,” Mr. Mayorkas said.

There have always been barriers at the border, and Democrats have voted for funding to construct them. But before Mr. Trump arrived on the scene, they were placed in high-traffic locations and were often short fences or barriers designed to prevent cars from crossing.

Mr. Trump changed that. He pushed for construction of a wall across the entire 2,000-mile border with Mexico. And he insisted on a 30-foot tall wall made of steel bollards, painted black to be more intimidating. At various points, Mr. Trump said he wanted to install sharp, pointed spikes at the top of the wall to skewer migrants who tried to climb over it.

That image — of an ominous and even dangerous barrier designed to send a message of “keep out” to anyone who approached — underscored the yearslong opposition from Democrats, including Mr. Biden, to its construction. At the end of 2018, the federal government shut down for 35 days — the longest in its history — over Democratic refusal to meet Mr. Trump’s demands for $5.7 billion to build the wall.

But for Mr. Biden, the politics of immigration have changed significantly since then.

Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York put it bluntly in a letter to the president at the end of August, as New York City struggled to deal with tens of thousands of new migrants.

“The challenges we face demand a much more vigorous federal response,” she wrote. “It is the federal government’s direct responsibility to manage and control the nation’s borders. Without any capacity or responsibility to address the cause of the migrant influx, New Yorkers cannot then shoulder these costs.”



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