President Biden said Friday that he would use new emergency authorities to “shut down the border when it becomes overwhelmed” if Congress passes a bipartisan immigration plan that the Senate has been negotiating.
The comments signified a remarkable shift in tone for a Democratic president and underscored the urgency of the issue for his reelection campaign as immigration remains one of his most vexing political and policy challenges.
In a lengthy statement Friday, Biden praised the bipartisan border deal senators have been negotiating, calling it “the toughest and fairest set of reforms to secure the border we’ve ever had in our country.”
“It would give me, as President, a new emergency authority to shut down the border when it becomes overwhelmed,” he said. “And if given that authority, I would use it the day I sign the bill into law.”
Biden is referencing a new expulsion authority senators have negotiated that would kick in on days unauthorized border crossings reach 5,000 over a five-day average, according to two people familiar with the outlines of the deal who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. That authority would shut down most asylum screenings for migrants crossing illegally. Migrants could still apply at ports of entry, where a set number of asylum claims would need to be granted, they said. Migrants would be expelled indefinitely until crossings dipped below 3,750 per day, which would end the expulsion authority period.
The deal also changes the U.S. asylum process with the goal of reducing the average time for an asylum claim to be resolved from several years to 6 months, the people said. It also raises the standard for migrants to be able to make an asylum claim in the first place. Some Republicans’ goal to dramatically curtail Biden’s use of his humanitarian parole powers for certain categories of migrants is not in the final deal, they said.
Senators said they hope to release the legislative text of the deal next week.
With crossings passing 10,000 per day during much of last month, both Democrats and Republicans have described that level of migration as unsustainable. Crossings have declined so far in January as Mexico has stepped up its enforcement, but Biden’s pledge to invoke a new “shut down” authority immediately upon signing a bill suggested that the border remained “overwhelmed.”
“For too long, we all know the border’s been broken,” Biden said in his statement. “It’s long past time to fix it.”
In a political atmosphere in which former president Donald Trump and top Republicans have hammered Biden over the influx of millions of migrants into the country, the president’s willingness — and apparent eagerness — to pursue a “shut down” at the border marked a major departure from traditional Democratic rhetoric on migration. It was also a reversal for Biden, who came into office determined to undo much of Trump’s immigration policies and implement what he called “humane and orderly” systems for processing desperate people fleeing troubled homelands.
Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has publicly opposed the bipartisan Senate deal, dismissing it as “meaningless.” He has repeatedly claimed that he would close down the border with Mexico on the first day of his presidency. He has also pledged to launch a massive deportation operation.
Biden has faced accusations from parts of his political base that his approach to the migrant crisis has become too reminiscent of Trump’s restrictive policies. His decision to back a Senate deal that includes a new provision to close down the border threatens to heighten those claims just as he is aiming to rally his party behind his reelection bid.
Even with the new limitations on migration, the border deal faces long odds in Congress. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said Friday that, based on what he had heard about the proposal, it would be “dead on arrival” in the House.
Biden’s allies have acknowledged the difficult political quandary the president faces on immigration, an area where he faces some of his worst approval ratings.
Some have pointed to the president’s past executive actions cracking down on asylum, expediting removals of migrants and implementing other restrictions as a sign that he is willing to take the heat from parts of his liberal base to solve the problem.
Still, the surge of migrants from dozens of nations has at times overwhelmed border agents, and images of large numbers of migrants flowing into the country have become a political headache for the administration.
Nearly 250,000 illegal border crossings were recorded along the U.S.-Mexico border in December, the highest monthly total ever.
The border deal also stands as a key pillar of a broader package that includes some of Biden’s most pressing foreign policy goals. Republican lawmakers have insisted on new border restrictions as part of a deal that would approve Biden’s request for billions of dollars in military assistance for Israel, Ukraine and Indo-Pacific nations.
Nick Miroff and Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.