Biden is expected to sign order letting him seal border with Mexico

Migrants who have illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum arrive on May 23 in San Diego. (Mark Abramson/The New York Times)

FILE — Concertina wire along the banks of the Rio Grande River, which separates the United States and Mexico, near Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas, Feb. 24, 2024. President Joe Biden is expected to sign an executive order on Tuesday, June 4, that would allow him to temporarily seal the U.S. border with Mexico to migrants when crossings surge and suspend longtime protections for asylum seekers in the United States. (Christopher Lee/The New York Times)

President Joe Biden is expected to sign an executive order Tuesday allowing him to temporarily seal the U.S. border with Mexico to migrants when crossings surge, a move that would suspend longtime protections for asylum-seekers in the United States.

Biden’s senior aides have told members of Congress in recent days to expect him to sign the order at the White House alongside mayors from south Texas, according to several people familiar with the plans.

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The restrictions would kick in once the number of illegal crossings exceeds 2,500 in a day, according to several people who have been briefed on the order. Daily totals already exceed that number, which means that Biden’s executive order could go into effect immediately.

The border would reopen to asylum-seekers if the number of crossings stays below 1,500 for a certain period of time, the people said. They asked for anonymity because the executive order has not been officially announced.

The order would be the most restrictive border policy instituted by Biden, or any other modern Democrat, and echoes an effort in 2018 by President Donald Trump to curb migration that Democrats assailed and federal courts blocked.

Although the executive action is almost certain to face legal challenges, Biden is under intense political pressure to address illegal immigration, a top concern of voters before the presidential election in November.

The decision shows how the politics of immigration have shifted sharply to the right over the course of Biden’s presidency. Polls suggest growing support — even in the president’s party — for border measures that Democrats once denounced and Trump championed.

Typically, migrants claiming asylum are released into the United States to wait for court appearances, where can they can plead their cases. But a huge backlog means those cases can take years to come up.

Proponents of the order say it will help relieve pressure on an overwhelmed system. There would be limited exceptions, however, including minors who cross the border alone, people experiencing medical emergencies and victims of human trafficking, according to several officials briefed on the order.

Migrants could also apply for other protections, aside from asylum — but those programs are already significantly more difficult to qualify for. And the administration is designing new screening processes that will make the bar even harder to clear.

The number of people illegally crossing the border has plunged in recent months after reaching record highs in December, when about 10,000 people a day were making their way into the United States.

Biden administration officials, panicked over the numbers in December, pressed Mexico to do more to curb migration. Mexican officials have since used charter flights and buses to move migrants deeper south and away from the United States.

On Sunday, border agents apprehended more than 3,500 people crossing without authorization, in line with the trends of recent weeks, according to a person with knowledge of the data.

The executive action is likely to mirror a measure in a failed bipartisan bill this year that had some of the most significant border security restrictions Congress had considered in years. The bill would have provided billions in funding for the border, including for the hiring of thousands of asylum officers to process claims.

But Republicans thwarted the bill in February, saying it was not strong enough. Many of them, egged on by Trump, were loath to give Biden a legislative victory in an election year. The president’s aides hope the executive order will provide him with an opportunity to hammer Republicans for their decision to kill the bipartisan bill, which would have provided billions of dollars to the Department of Homeland Security.

“While congressional Republicans chose to stand in the way of additional border enforcement, President Biden will not stop fighting to deliver the resources that border and immigration personnel need to secure our border,” Angelo Fernández Hernández, a White House spokesperson, said in a statement Monday. He did not confirm the plans but said the administration was exploring “a series of policy options, and we remain committed to taking action to address our broken immigration system.”

The American Civil Liberties Union led the charge against the Trump administration’s attempt to block asylum in 2018, which resulted in the policy being stopped by federal courts. The group has signaled that it is ready to challenge any order that limits asylum at the border.

“We will need to review the EO before deciding on litigation, but any policy that effectively cuts off protection for desperate migrants would raise serious legal problems, as it did when the Trump administration tried to end asylum,” said Lee Gelernt, a lawyer at the ACLU who led the challenge against many of Trump’s policies.

While Republicans have long assailed Democrats over border security, Biden in recent years has also faced calls by members of his party for stronger enforcement.

Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., who won a special House election this year partly by calling for stricter immigration measures, sent a letter to Biden last month encouraging him to issue an executive order that would restrict asylum.

“I think it’s very, very important, not only for Democrats or for political purposes, but it’s important for America,” Suozzi said in an interview. “This is something the people are very concerned about.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who has previously called on the president to bolster enforcement at the border, said he had been briefed on the order.

“While the order is yet to be released, I am supportive of the details provided to me thus far,” he said.

Still, there are political risks to issuing the order. Republicans have in recent days questioned why Biden did not take unilateral action at the border sooner. In January, he told reporters that he had “done all I can do” at the border and that he needed help from Congress.

“The American people know better,” Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., wrote in a social media post Monday.

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