President-elect Joe Biden's incoming administration warned Tuesday that any transformational changes to the immigration system won't happen overnight, trying to temper expectations that a Democrat in the White House would quickly unravel the Trump administration's years of hardline and chaotic policies.
Transition officials did, however, discuss plans to change procedures for those seeking asylum at the southern border. The incoming administration said it wants to identify the most vulnerable immigrants and process their claims first — instead of on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The change is as part of the Biden team's plan to rethink asylum processing altogether, transition officials said on a call with reporters.
“The goal is to change the way people are greeted at the border, to make the process more efficient, to make it more fair, to make it more humane,” a Biden transition official said. “This means enabling asylum officers to adjudicate claims so that asylum-seekers aren’t tied up in court proceedings for years.”
The Trump administration's severe restrictions placed on immigrants — and all of the policy, staffing, and logistical changes that come with that — means the system will need to be put back in place carefully, a Biden transition official said.
“It's an enormous challenge, really, because the current administration broke so many things,” a transition official said.
The Trump administration issued an order, citing the pandemic, that effectively blocks most immigrants from accessing the US immigration system. Before the pandemic, border officers would regulate how many immigrants were allowed to enter the US at official crossings to request asylum, a process known as queue management or “metering.”
A Biden transition official said the administration intends to end metering, which started under the Obama administration, because it artificially limits capacity, reduces access to the nation’s immigration system, and deters immigrants from seeking protection in the US. In October, a Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General report found that authorities in the US who turned away asylum-seekers at official border crossings told immigrants they didn't have space to process them, regardless of whether they actually could.
Their plan is different from metering because the intent is to increase processing at the border and prioritize those who need the most protection, a Biden transition official said. The most vulnerable immigrants would be identified with the help of NGOs on the ground.
"Right now people are sleeping outside the ports of entry to maintain a place in line and it's when we're having a public health crisis. A terrible situation,” a Biden transition official said. “The plan is to partner with organizations in Mexico to make sure that we're collaborating and effectively processing individuals who are waiting to present at the ports."
The conversation with reporters came a day after Susan Rice, Biden’s choice to lead the Domestic Policy Council, and Jake Sullivan, his pick for national security adviser, told the Spanish-language news agency EFE that it would take months to fully restore asylum processing at the border.
"Processing capacity at the border is not like a light that you can just switch on and off," Rice told EFE. "Migrants and asylum-seekers absolutely should not believe those in the region peddling the idea that the border will suddenly be fully open to process everyone on Day 1. It will not."
Rice said the Biden administration would address the root causes of migration, by working with civil society, the private sector, governments, and international partners. The administration said it hopes to implement a $4 billion, four-year plan to tackle corruption, enhance security, and foster prosperity in areas people are fleeing.
"We know that most people won’t choose to leave their country and risk their own and their families’ lives unless the conditions at home are potentially more dangerous than migrating," Rice told EFE.
Another plan is to expand legal pathways for migration that allow people to apply for refugee resettlement, temporary worker, and other employment-based programs from within the Western hemisphere, including in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Sullivan said the Biden administration would not immediately end Trump's Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which forces immigrants to wait in Mexico while their US immigration cases are completed. The plan is to end it early in Biden's administration.
"MPP has been a disaster from the start and has led to a humanitarian crisis in northern Mexico. But putting the new policy into practice will take time," Sullivan said. "The current administration dismantled much of the necessary capacity to ensure the safe and orderly processing of migrants. We need time to increase processing capacity and to do so consistent with public health requirements."