Biden says he’s ‘ready to act’ on ‘significant’ changes at the border, including asylum

By: - January 19, 2024 6:27 pm

President Joe Biden speaks with more than 300 bipartisan mayors Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, thanking them for their work in implementing various pieces of legislation to help address climate change, infrastructure and gun violence. (Screenshot from C-SPAN)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Friday said he backs “significant policy changes” to asylum law, amid ongoing immigration policy negotiations between the White House and Senate tied to passage of a global security package.

“I believe we need significant policy changes at the border, including changes in our asylum system, to ensure that we have the authority we need to control the border,” Biden said in remarks to mayors gathered at the White House. “I’m ready to act.”

It’s a stark contrast with the president’s campaign promise to “restore our moral standing in the world and our historic role as a safe haven for refugees and asylum-seekers,” as he said in his 2020 acceptance speech at the virtual Democratic National Convention.

But as the 2024 presidential election gets underway and increasing numbers of migrants claim asylum at the Southern border, Biden has taken a harder line approach on immigration, especially to free up aid to Ukraine.

The comments were made during a meeting with hundreds of U.S. mayors, and as cities such as Chicago and New York have requested federal aid to handle migrants that GOP Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has sent to Democratic cities in buses and planes without warning local officials.

Immigration is also a central campaign issue for the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, former President Donald Trump, who regularly blasts the “invasion” of the United States by immigrants.

Biden hopes for border deal next week

Biden said that his administration’s team, which includes U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, is continuing to negotiate with a group of bipartisan senators to strike a deal on immigration policies. Senate Republicans have demanded immigration in legislation in return for their support for billions in aid to Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and U.S. border security.

Progressive and Latino lawmakers this week pushed back against changes to asylum law advocated by Republicans who want to set a higher bar for migrants to claim asylum.

There is no bill text yet for a border security deal, but GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has said that the lead Republican negotiator, Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, has negotiated “meaningful reforms” in immigration policy through expedited removal procedures and changes to asylum law.

A major sticking point for Republicans in those talks is the White House’s use of parole, which temporarily grants immigration protection. It’s a tool that the Biden administration has used for more than 140,000 Ukrainians; more than 76,000 Afghans; and 168,000 Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan nationals. The White House has also used parole for migrants at the Southern border.

Biden said that he hopes a deal can be reached with the Senate next week and said that it’s up to House Republicans if “they are ready to act as well.”

“They have to choose whether they want to solve a problem or keep weaponizing the issue to score political points against the president,” Biden said.

House Republicans are also moving forward with impeachment proceedings into Mayorkas over the Biden administration’s immigration policies at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mayors in D.C.

The president’s remarks closed the three-day conference that marked the United States Conference of Mayors’ 92nd winter meeting in Washington, D.C. He touted his administration’s bipartisan work to help state and local governments improve infrastructure and address climate change.

“Mayors get the job done,” he said. “With your help, we’re also making the biggest investment in fighting climate change.”

Biden pointed to the implementation of the bipartisan infrastructure law and Democrats’ climate and policy law known as the Inflation Reduction Act.

He also praised the mayors for helping reduce gun violence by implementing the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

“We’ve got to do a lot more,” Biden said, such as passing universal background checks and banning assault weapons.

Members of Congress also joined throughout the conference, including U.S. Reps. Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, and Marc Molinaro, Republican of New York, who made a joint appearance early Friday.

Gottheimer and Molinaro, both members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said that Congress needs to focus on issues that Republicans and Democrats can agree on, such as the bipartisan infrastructure law and bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act. Their comments came during a panel moderated by Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Andrew Ginther.

“We gotta put the country first,” Gottheimer said, adding that by doing so, “it’ll lift everyone up.”

Cabinet officials such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg participated in interviews led by Reno, Nevada Mayor Hillary Schieve.

Schieve is also president of the Conference of Mayors.

Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told the mayors early Friday that one thing he missed about local government is how “local leadership is just more rooted in reality,” and that if there is a hole in the road, people will know whether it gets fixed.

“The truth is never that far away,” he said.

Buttigieg said he tries to bring that level of work to the national level through federal investment in roads, trains and transit.

Harris, mayors discuss gun violence

Vice President Kamala Harris also met with mayors, on Thursday, and participated in a conversation about gun violence.

There were 414 mass shootings in 2019, 610 in 2020, 689 in 2021, 646 in 2022 and656  in 2023, according to Gun Violence Archive, which tracks gun violence in the U.S.

The archive tallied 14 mass shootings so far this year.

During the conversation with Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas, Harris touted the Biden administration’s White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention and its work to help states access funds from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act — the gun safety legislation Congress passed in 2022 following two deadly mass shootings.

Those mass shootings were at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were murdered and in Buffalo, New York, where a white supremacist targeted a Black neighborhood and killed 10 Black people at a grocery store.

“Gun violence is the leading cause of death of children in America,” Harris said. “I have met with parents who say a silent prayer every time their child gets on a school bus, or they drop them off at school, that there’s nobody running around with an assault weapon, breaking into their school.”

Lucas asked Harris what advice she would give mayors trying to tackle the gun violence epidemic.

“The convening power of mayors is extraordinary,” she said. “You then as mayors have the power to convene not only the community-based providers, but the folks from city agencies, folks from law enforcement and to create these conversations where, invariably, ideas will come from and plans can be hatched to create greater synergy.”

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.