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6 experts give a letter grade on Biden-Harris administration’s handling of immigration thus far


Immigration has been a prevalent issue in the Biden-Harris             administration’s first six months.

  • The New York Times on Monday said the White House would continue a polarizing Trump border policy.
  • Insider asked experts to grade the administration on its handling of immigration thus far.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page

The New York Times reported Monday that the Biden administration would continue a controversial Trump-era border-closing policy known as Title 42.

Since President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took office more than six months ago, their administration’s immigration policies and campaign promises have often been in the spotlight.

From a steady increase of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the border (including, possibly, an all-time high in July ), to a near-constant barrage of Republican and Democratic criticism over the issue, to the status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, there are still many immigration issues for the administration to negotiate.

Harris has served as the public face for the administration’s handling of immigration since March, when Biden assigned her to head the government’s efforts to slow migration at the border by addressing root causes in Central American countries.

In June, during her first trip to the US-Mexico border since taking office, Harris called for an end to the political “rhetoric” and “infighting” over immigration. The stop in El Paso, Texas, came three weeks after she visited Guatemala on her first foreign trip and told migrants “do not come” to the US.

In May, June, and July, Insider asked seven immigration experts to give the administration a report-card-style grade on its handling of the issue so far.

Pedro Rios , director of the American Friends Service Committee’s US/Mexico Border Program:

Grade: D


Rios told Insider a “good percentage” of his low grade was because of the administration’s retainment of Title 42, the Trump-era pandemic-related emergency rule used to rapidly turn away migrants with the exception of unaccompanied minors. Policy experts have said it played a massive role in the increased number of children crossing the border earlier this year.

The monthslong continuation of Title 42 has surprised many immigration advocates, who expected the administration to reopen the pathway for asylum seekers.

“There are people that have died in attempts to cross into the US or have been placed in precarious situations,” Rios said.

Rios also criticized the administration’s lack of clarity for communities that have been affected by construction on border-wall projects through land confiscation and damage.

What the administration can do better

First and foremost, Rios wants to see Title 42 ended, and soon.

Beyond that, he’s concerned about what he sees as a push by the administration for infrastructure known as “smart” or “intelligent” borders, as an alternative to natural physical borders – a proposal included in the immigration bill Biden sent to Congress earlier this year detailing his commitment to “modernize” the immigration system.

“I think Biden’s commitment to this type of border enforcement is troubling for me,” he said. “So I would like to see a rejection of adopting intelligent technology for enforcement without there really having been an analysis or discernment about how these type of tools can wreak havoc.”


A US Customs and Border Protection agent standing guard on the US side of the US-Mexico border fence.

PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez, longtime immigration organizer who Biden told to ‘vote for Trump’

Grade: F


“When Biden was running for office, there was a concern within the immigrant-rights movement, to see how much he would distance himself from the Obama-administration legacy of mass deportation,” Rojas Rodriguez told Insider.

“We had nice rhetoric and terrible practices, and with Biden so far, when the rubber meets the road what we are seeing is disappointment and disappointment.”

On the campaign trail, Rojas Rodriguez challenged Biden during a question-and-answer period asking whether he would commit to a full deportation moratorium, which Biden rejected, and later told Rojas Rodriguez to “vote for Trump.”

Rojas Rodriguez told Insider that moment and Harris’ ” moment of honesty ” in Guatemala had also defined the failures and priorities of the administration on immigration. Rojas Rodriguez added that for “low-hanging fruit,” like raising the refugee cap from the previous administration, it took movement and political pressure for the administration to increase it.

What the administration can do better :

Rojas Rodriguez told Insider the administration should make clear its legislative priorities, use the congressional legislative process known as reconciliation as a tool on immigration, and include a pathway to citizenship for all immigrants living in the US illegally.

He said nine in 10 farmworkers were unauthorized and many more had worked in other industries deemed essential throughout the pandemic.

Lee Gelernt , deputy director ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project

Grade: N/A


Gelernt declined to give the administration a grade but said overall the administration has done “very well” on immigration with one notable exception: the border. In particular, Gelernt criticized the continued existence of Title 42 for families and adults.

“We have never believed Title 42 policy is lawful or humane or was necessary as a public-health measure,” Gelernt told Insider. “We are deeply troubled that the Biden administration has retained that policy and I think that the retention of the Title 42 policy for families is a significant blemish on the administration’s immigration work.”

In January, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the federal government regarding the expulsion of asylum seekers under Title 42. In the months following, the administration and ACLU held negotiations in the case. Gelernt was unable to discuss certain concessions made by the government thus far but did say the two sides agreed on a Title 42 exemption for particularly vulnerable families.

On June 8, the administration and the nonprofit agreed to another advance in the lawsuit until June 18, but Gelernt warned that an imminent timetable is necessary.

“In the next coming days, we’re going to have to see a timeline for ending Title 42 very soon or we’re going back to court.”

What the administration can do better :

Gelernt said he was pleased to see Harris’ focus on addressing the root causes of migration during her trip to Guatemala earlier this month.

“As the VP acknowledged, people do not want to pick up and leave their home countries … separate their families if they don’t have to,” Gelernt said. “So, if we can eliminate the violence in those countries as well as the other problems … then I think we will see less migration.”

But ultimately, fixing root causes of migration is a long-term solution. Gelernt urged the US to allow asylum seekers to enter the country and make their claims in the meantime.

“I was very disappointed to hear her continue the administration’s message of telling people not to come,” he said. “We cannot be telling people to stay home no matter how much danger they’re in.”

Gelernt emphasized the US’s decades-long duty to accept asylum seekers and encouraged the administration to, instead, send a message that highlights that commitment.

“The [Biden] administration has done an enormous amount of good and has eliminated most of the Trump administration’s restrictive and unlawful immigration,” he said.

“But if we eliminate the opportunity to see asylum for very much longer, we are going to do real damage to the country’s historic commitment,” Gelernt added.


Central American asylum seekers arriving at a bus station after being released by US Border Patrol agents on February 26 in Brownsville, Texas.

John Moore/Getty Images

Roberto Lopez and Laura Peña, TX Civil Rights Project

Grade: D/F


“On the border wall alone, it’s been a failure,” Lopez told Insider.

He mentioned that several of the organization’s clients, including the Cavazos family , had had their lands seized for border-wall construction through carryover eminent-domain cases from the Trump administration. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to withdraw from those types of lawsuits and promised that “not one more inch” of the border wall would be built.

Lopez and Pena added that the maintaining of Title 42 at the border was a major issue. In terms of the Remain in Mexico policy , they commended the administration for ending it “in name,” and later promising that people whose cases were closed could reapply. The test, they said, would be how the Biden administration would process people who fell through the cracks because of Trump-era asylum policies.

What the administration can do better :

They said the administration should withdraw from all eminent-domain border cases and return lands seized already. Both added that the administration must rescind Title 42.

Bob Carey, former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement under Obama admin

Grade: B/B+


“There needs to be an element of realistic appraisal in terms of what has been achievable in this time frame,” Carey told Insider, adding that he wouldn’t give the administration a pass on its border policy so far.

“People see the optics of immigration through the border, but closing down the border is not an appropriate response,” he added.

Carey added that in his view, he wouldn’t say the Biden administration had failed because there was still a rebuilding of humanitarian and legal representational capacity at the border and across immigration agencies that the administration needed time to adequately carry out.

What the administration can do better :

Strengthening the asylum system so that it is safe, orderly, and transparent. Carey’s biggest qualm had to do with messaging and transparency.

“Things have been communicated inconsistently, it’s important that there be an all-of-government approach on immigration,” Carey told Insider. “‘Do not come,’ can be interpreted as, we don’t have an asylum policy, or the border is closed.”

Carey mentioned that the flip-flopping on the refugee cap was another example of a poorly-fleshed-out message and goal. He told Insider that going forward, the Biden administration needed to prioritize a multipronged approach and foster a “broadly-engaged humanitarian commitment” on immigration in a bipartisan way.


Harris and Guatemala’s minister of foreign affairs, Pedro Brolo, at her arrival ceremony in Guatemala City on June 6 at Guatemalan Air Force Central Command.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Oliver Merino, coordinator for Immigration Legal Resource Center

Grade: F


Merino said there had been plenty of disappointments stemming from promises made on the campaign trail and felt that the page hadn’t been turned from the Trump administration on immigration.

“The comments that VP Harris made in Guatemala, honestly could have come from an official in the Trump administration, almost word for word, and they could have come from the Obama administration as well,” Merino told Insider.

Merino’s low mark also related to the maintaining of Title 42 border closings and the ongoing deportations despite a promised deportation moratorium. He added that the recent budget included increases for the US Customs and Border Protection and detention, and said that on the legislative side, the administration so far had not prioritized immigration bills.

What the administration can do better :

Merino said the administration should immediately rescind Title 42 as a start. Merino added that the administration should also clarify its priorities for deportation, which were updated in a late-May memo from Immigration and Customs Enforcement .

Vicki Gaubeca , director of Southern Border Communities Coalition:

Grade: B-


“I think I’d give them a B- only because the intent to create a humanitarian, efficient process is there,” Gaubeca said. “The minus would come from them just not figuring out how to do that quickly and correctly, I’d say.”

Gaubeca criticized the administration for relying too heavily on US Customs and Border Protection, an agency she said operated exclusively through a law-enforcement lens with no humanitarian considerations.

But from her perspective, the Biden administration’s approach to immigration thus far had already been a massive improvement from the Trump administration’s method, and she’s optimistic about the future.

“We’re not where we want to be, but at least we’re not where we used to be,” she said.

What the administration can do better :

Gaubeca had several recommendations for how the administration could improve its handling of immigration and the border: lift Title 42; connect with nongovernmental immigration organizations on the ground and make sure they’re adequately resourced; and shift away from a law-enforcement approach to managing the border.

“Ultimately … continue to push for a just and fair immigration reform that is not tied to more border security,” Gaubeca said.

“Immigrants actually strengthen our nation,” she added. “We need to figure out a way to do that that also protects human rights and dignity of people that will ultimately be useful for us.”