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What is being done with immigration?

Por Mariel Fiori
February 2024
A recent report from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) states that, with three years in office, Biden's presidency is the most active in immigration, despite the narrative of a border crisis.

By taking 535 immigration-related actions in its first three years, the Biden administration has already surpassed the 472 executive actions related to immigration during the four years of President Donald Trump's term.

As a result of these efforts, legal immigration is returning to pre-pandemic levels and, in some cases, surpassing them, including refugee admissions on track to reach the highs of the 1990s. A new border process has been adopted to discourage irregular arrivals, temporary humanitarian protections have been extended to hundreds of thousands of migrants, and law enforcement priorities have focused on smaller categories of unauthorized immigrants.

Combined, the report states that these changes have fulfilled some of President Joe Biden's campaign promises, helped boost the U.S. economy, and reduced fears of seemingly arbitrary enforcement of laws against deported non-citizens. The article reviews the main immigration actions during the first three years of President Biden's term, focusing on border and interior surveillance, impacts on U.S. cities, humanitarian protection, immigration courts, and legal admissions.

For example, during the pandemic, Title 42 resulted in fewer deportations by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In 2023, ICE deported 143,000 migrants, almost double the number in 2022 (72,000), but still well below the average annual deportations of 234,000 during Trump's term and 344,000 during President Barack Obama's term. When Title 42 ended, deportations exceeded pre-pandemic figures. From May to December, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) carried out over 470,000 expulsions or returns, mostly of migrants who crossed the southwest border without authorization.
While record encounters at the southwest border have dominated headlines, the success of the Biden administration in advancing its law enforcement agenda in the interior has received minimal attention. Guidelines on prosecutorial discretion, published in September 2021, were unblocked by the courts after a year. In 2023, ICE lawyers exercised case-by-case discretion and agreed to dismiss or suspend 119,000 cases.

In parallel, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) has tried to address massive delays by allowing immigration judges to eliminate non-priority cases. In 2023, 208,000 deportation cases, particularly asylum cases, were dismissed or concluded, accounting for more than a third of the 2.5 million court cases until October. However, the courts received 1.2 million new cases in 2023, many from recent arrivals at the border, meaning judges will continue to be overwhelmed in the coming years unless significant policies are adopted. Nonetheless, the courts completed a record 523,000 cases in 2023.

Legal immigrant admissions to the United States surged in 2023: almost 1.2 million immigrants became legal permanent residents (LPR, also known as green card holders) in 2023, surpassing the pre-pandemic annual average of 1.1 million. The Department of State issued 10.4 million non-immigrant visas that year, the highest since 2015 and compared to 6.8 million in 2022. Additionally, 883,000 immigrants were naturalized in 2023 (964,000 in 2022), the highest number since 2008.

Nevertheless, in November, 1.1 million asylum cases were backlogged at the USCIS, with another 938,000 pending in immigration courts. The total backlog of green card applications reached 7.6 million in November, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, due to processing delays and annual visa limits set by Congress. At USCIS, over 9 million applications were waiting to be processed for various benefits when 2023 ended.

U.S. immigration laws and enforcement resources were largely developed for a different time and cannot cope with today's diverse, family-oriented, and unprecedentedly protection-needing border arrivals. Existing court mandates, new trials, and the constant threat of litigation limit the administration's options.

What is needed are immigration laws for the 21st century. Comprehensive and fair immigration reform. Representatives in Congress, when?

Mariel Fiori

* Translated from Spanish by Karen Ruiz León
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