Texas border mayors join Biden as he unveils new asylum restrictions to stem migrant flow

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By Joseph Morton | Dallas Morning News

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on enforcement at the U.S.- Mexico border in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday June 4, 2024. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced new asylum restrictions intended to reduce the number of migrants entering the country illegally, he was flanked by Texas officials from U.S.-Mexico border communities.

Edinburg Mayor Ramiro Garza told reporters after the East Room event that local leaders don’t have the luxury of doing nothing.

“This does not, obviously, fix our entire system, but this is a step in the right direction to try to help us cope with this issue,” Garza said.

The new restrictions are triggered when average daily encounters at the border surpass 2,500, which means they will take immediate effect because the number of migrant encounters is already above that threshold.

The restrictions continue until the daily average falls below 1,500.

While they are in effect, those crossing the border unlawfully between ports of entry will not generally be eligible to seek asylum. Individuals who cross despite being ineligible for asylum face a five-year bar to reentry and potential criminal prosecution.

Exceptions include unaccompanied children, individuals with an acute medical emergency or those facing imminent threat to their lives. Those who express a fear of persecution or torture will receive a screening, but their claims will be subject to a higher standard of “reasonable probability” rather than the current “significant possibility” standard.

The White House said the restrictions would ease pressure on an overwhelmed asylum process by changing the calculus of migrants, who will be less likely to pay thousands of dollars to the smuggling networks that control routes to the U.S. border.

Biden said he would have preferred bipartisan immigration legislation, which he described as the only way to comprehensively fix a broken system, while hiring more Border Patrol agents, asylum officers and judges.

“But Republicans have left me with no choice,” he said.

He pointed to the bipartisan border proposal negotiated earlier this year between Democrats and U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. Democrats said that proposal would have been the toughest border legislation passed in years and cited the Border Patrol union’s backing, but most Senate Republicans have rejected it as misguided.

Biden welcomed the local leaders who joined him for Tuesday’s announcement, saying most live and work along the border.

“They know the border is not a political issue to be weaponized,” Biden said. “They don’t have time for the games played in Washington, and neither do the American people.”

In addition to Garza, Biden was joined by the mayors of Brownsville, Harlingen, Laredo, El Paso and San Antonio, as well as the Bexar County sheriff, and U.S. Reps. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, and Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen.

Biden’s move was swiftly panned by Texas Republicans as too little, too late and an attempt to paper over a political vulnerability ahead of the November election. Biden’s opponent, former President Donald Trump, has a significant advantage in public polling when it comes to managing the border.

Migrants who crossed the Rio Grande and entered the U.S. from Mexico are lined up for processing by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Sept. 23, 2023, in Eagle Pass, Texas. (Eric Gay/AP File Photo)

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, rejected a suggestion Republicans might welcome the changes.

“He has absolutely no intention of actually enforcing any of this,” Cornyn said. “This is not an improvement. This is a fig leaf. And I think the American people are not going to be fooled.”

U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, who is challenging Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in the November election, has criticized Cruz for opposing the bipartisan border security bill and legislation with money for more Border Patrol agents.

Biden’s order could bring long overdue relief if implemented correctly, Allred said in a statement Tuesday.

“This action will not entirely solve this crisis but we are here because of Ted Cruz’s efforts to block any solution to our broken immigration system,” Allred said. “There is no substitute for comprehensive Congressional action to secure our border and get Texas border communities the resources they need.”

Cruz said he’s glad Biden finally admitted he had the power to act on the border but offered the “too little too late” assessment favored by many GOP lawmakers.

“This executive order is about the Biden administration trying to give themselves political cover ahead of the election in November, and it won’t work,” Cruz said. “The executive order will still allow thousands of illegal aliens to come across the border per day. That’s absurd, and the American people won’t buy it.”

Cruz reiterated his criticism of the “terrible” border legislation, saying it would have codified a catch-and-release approach at the border, normalized thousands of illegal crossings per day and provided billions to nongovernmental organizations helping people who enter the country without authorization.

Illustrating the tightrope Biden is walking on immigration, some progressive Democrats criticized the new asylum restrictions as too harsh.

The daily threshold in the executive order represents a functional ban on asylum for families escaping violence, said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio.

“If this executive order goes into effect, it’s likely that every future president, especially Republicans, will use and expand it to choke off immigration and the right to asylum,” Castro said. “The political pressure to keep the ban in effect will be too overwhelming.”

Some migrant advocacy organizations also criticized the move and the ACLU plans legal action against it.

“We need solutions to address the challenges at the border, but the administration’s planned executive actions will put thousands of lives at risk,” said Deirdre Schifeling, ACLU chief political and advocacy officer.

At the White House on Tuesday, Brownsville Mayor John Cowen said the number of migrant crossings has fallen in his sector in recent months, but officials know it can jump up again at any time. High numbers of migrants crossing the border illegally strains law enforcement, he said.

He praised Tuesday’s actions, which he said should push people to use legal pathways for entry.

“It should have been done three years ago, but we can’t really go back in time,” Cowen said. “I’m just glad action’s being taken.”

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser agreed the new actions should push people to safer, legal avenues for entry.

He acknowledged criticism from some organizations that Biden’s executive action is focused on enforcement rather than humanitarian considerations but said a bipartisan agreement is required to truly fix the system.

“This is only the beginning,” Leeser said.

©2024 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.