President Biden and Immigration: A Disconnect between Rhetoric and Policy

By Juan Carlos Gomez  

Throughout the campaign and even after taking office, President Biden promised a more humane approach toward people arriving at the border seeking asylum—if only to distance himself from the overtly xenophobic and cruel policies of President Trump. Yet our recent analysis of the budget of three agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reveals a disconnect between the president’s rhetoric and his priorities, which intensely focus on enforcement and deterrence, mirroring the approach of his predecessor.

Biden’s budget request for enforcement could exceed Trump’s 

We compared the budgets of two DHS agencies focused largely on immigration enforcement—Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—with that of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that oversees applications for citizenship, naturalization, visas, and other forms of legal migration. We found the budget requests of CBP and ICE dwarfed the budget of USCIS: CBP’s total budget is three times that of USCIS and ICE’s budget exceeds USCIS’s budget by more than $2 billion. Biden’s budget request for USCIS (less than $1 billion) is a fraction of what he asked for CBP and ICE ($16.4 billion and $8.3 billion, respectively). USCIS’s budget is mostly powered by fees, which could be burdensome for immigrants who are not already wealthy.

In addition, the Biden Administration has asked for additional money in the form of a $4.7 billion contingency fund for CPB and ICE officials to use at their discretion for enforcement and deterrence activities. Including the contingency fund, Biden’s budget request would provide these two agencies with $29.4 billion in discretionary funding, exceeding the $25.5 billion Trump requested for CBP and ICE in FY 2021.

However, research shows that increased immigration enforcement will not deter people coming to the United States.  In fact, greater enforcement creates more chaos and pushes families to try to enter the country in more dangerous ways. This contingency fund is especially troubling but perhaps not surprising since Title 42, the Trump-era policy used to deport asylum seekers supposedly in the name of public health, will expire on May 11.

Notably, the Biden Administration also requested 30 percent less for the Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program. When delivered in partnership with community-based organizations, ATD programs can provide immigrants with a humane and dignified alternative to detention while they await the outcome of their immigration case. Cutting ATD programs is both cruel and costly. These programs cost less than $8 a day per person compared to detention, which costs $150 a day per person. The administration states that immigration agencies could use money from the contingency fund to support the program further. However, without dedicated funding, increased support for ATD programs isn’t guaranteed, and the contingency fund could very well be used for immigration enforcement actions.

A continuation of harmful policies 

Increased support for ICE and CBP will provide the administration with the resources they need to continue and, in some instances, expand Trump’s harmful immigration policies. Rather than rebuilding our asylum system or investing in pathways that allow immigrants to arrive safely and with authorized status, the administration has proposed harmful policies such as an asylum ban, which would require immigrants to prove they have been denied asylum in a country through which they traveled and schedule an appointment for making their case for asylum using a smartphone app, which has been found to be unreliable.

If immigrants don’t follow these rules, they could face expulsion when they arrive at the border. Restrictions on asylum deny protection to children in families. Between March 2020 and May 2022, CBP expelled 30,806 children ages 3 and under to Mexican border cities, putting them in harm’s way.

Rights to asylum should not rely on access to a cell phone or internet service and should not force people to wait for approval in the very places they are trying to escape. The right to asylum is a human right recognized both domestically and internationally. Earlier this year, President Biden himself recognized that seeking asylum is a human right and referenced one of the most shameful moments in the United States’ immigration history: when asylum seekers fleeing the Holocaust were denied access to safety. The administration’s asylum policies undermine the promise that this country made to never again deny people the right to seek asylum. 

This disconnect in rhetoric and proposed policy is apparent among the administration’s highest officials. In early March Secretary Mayorkas stated that DHS was considering reinstating the family detention policy despite extensive research showing that there is no amount of time that is appropriate to jail children and their families. ICE detention is dangerous and at times fatal for immigrants in their custody. No amount of oversight or reform will make these systems completely safe for immigrants. Increased funding for ICE, including through a contingency fund with little oversight, will only exacerbate the harm. 

President Biden has issued two executive orders that commit the administration to racial equity, but on immigration, many of the administration’s proposed policies and funding requests unfortunately reflect the xenophobia and racism of his predecessor. The budget ignores the substantial evidence that anti-immigrant policies are dangerous, inhumane, wasteful, and costly. 

With the end of Title 42 approaching, the administration will have to decide whether it will take a new, humane approach, or continue to use a failing punitive approach. This administration can’t purport to support immigrants while proposing to expand the detention of children and families and limit the ability to seek asylum. It can’t claim to want an orderly process for immigrants to gain pathways to citizenship when it is requesting less funding for the agency that provides those pathways. The administration’s rhetoric toward immigrants doesn’t match its actions.