The Biden administration is struggling with its message on immigration both at home and abroad, unveiling a series of surprising measures recently, including one that takes a page out of his predecessor’s much-maligned playbook.

The White House announced last week that it would use its executive authority to sidestep 26 environmental and historical protection regulations in order to build segments of border wall in Texas — contradicting a campaign-era promise that he would not build “another foot” of former President Trump’s wall. 

President Biden cited appropriations laws forcing his hand to spend funds as directed by Congress, but officials were hard pressed to justify the environmental waivers, limiting themselves to citing precedent.

And in another move that stunned immigration advocates, the administration announced it would resume deportation flights to Venezuela even as citizens flee the authoritarian-led country by the tens of thousands each month. 

Frustration on both sides

It’s whiplash from an announcement just last month that the U.S. would redesignate Venezuela for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), allowing Venezuelans who arrived in the United States before July 31 to remain in the country given the danger of repatriation. 

The Biden administration has also expended significant energy and political capital in calling on would-be migrants to stay where they are, drawing mockery from the right and accusations of callousness from the left. 

While advocates’ reactions have ranged from confused to fuming, the White House has won no accolades from conservatives who see immigration and the border as one of Biden’s biggest vulnerabilities. Republicans have made an art form of transmuting any issue into a springboard to criticize Biden’s border policy. 

Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently segued from the war between Hamas and Israel to the U.S.-Mexico border in an interview with The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website. 

“We should wake up ourselves. We could have the same thing happen next week to us,” McCarthy said. 

“We caught more people on the terrorist watchlist in February than we caught in the entire administration. We could have cells sitting inside of America right now.”

A statistical analysis by the Cato Institute found that between 1978 and 2022, no one on U.S. soil died in a terrorist attack committed by an undocumented immigrant. 

House Republicans on Monday unveiled a report by the House Judiciary Committee that they said provides proof of an “open border.”  

To make their case, Republicans categorized anyone crossing the southwest border without visas as “illegal aliens.” The report found that “southwest border illegal alien encounters exceeded 2.2 million in the first 11 months of fiscal 2023” and gave the administration credit for about 6,000 deportations from that group. 

The report’s “illegal aliens” included asylum seekers and parolees using the Biden administration’s expanded legal pathways to entry — individuals who by law are not considered undocumented — though some may have weak claims that would make them eligible for deportation. 

“This so-called report is full of lies from House Republicans who continue to play politics while sabotaging President Biden’s work to ramp up enforcement and personnel at the border,” a White House spokesperson said. 

“Since May 12, we have removed or returned nearly 300,000 individuals, and there have been more than 3.6 million repatriations and expulsions since January 2021. Additionally, the Administration recently announced that it would restart repatriation flights to Venezuela and in September, [the Department of Homeland Security] announced a new series of actions to surge resources to the border to continue its enforcement efforts.” 

Obama, Trump and Biden

The Biden administration, like previous Democratic ones, has tried to strike a balance between strict enforcement and a humanitarian vision, drawing criticism from the left while failing to appease the right. 

Immigration advocates are accustomed to frustration: Prior administrations have also sought tough-on-the-border accolades against all political odds. 

The Biden administration’s “do not come” messaging is at once a response to growing migration in the Americas and a reflection of the Obama administration’s mass deportation policy. 

“I think there’s a sense of desperation at the White House. They won’t sit down with the advocates for immigration and put together a plan,” former Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said in a recent interview with The Hill.  

“So what I think the Biden administration is doing is simply — how would I say this? Just throwing out any solution, including bad ones, including bad ones, such as lifting all of the environmental and all of the other standards and allowing the continuation of Trump’s wall,” said Gutiérrez, who famously dubbed former President Obama the “deporter in chief.” 

In essence, the Biden administration is facing a continuation of the migration phenomenon that caused Obama headaches, though on a different scale.

In 2014, the Obama administration faced its own “crisis” when nearly 70,000 Central American unaccompanied minors showed up at the border.

The more than 150,000 encounters with unaccompanied minors in fiscal 2022 represented only a fraction of the nearly 2.4 million total encounters at the border.

Hitting the wall

Though advocates have called for a focus on order rather than deterrence in the face of a phenomenon with no easy answers, the Biden administration has opted for the carrot-and-stick approach, which now includes its publicly reluctant wall construction.

Biden, when running for office, was fundamentally opposed of the concept of a wall. 

“There will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration, No. 1,” he said during an interview with a group of journalists in August 2020.

“I’m going to make sure that we have border protection, but it’s going to be based on making sure that we use high-tech capacity to deal with it.”

And many of his actions in office have backed that stance — including trying to claw back funding otherwise designated for the wall.

But Biden and Homeland Security officials both offered conflicting statements about plans to build new segments of wall.

“They have to use the money for what it was appropriated. I can’t stop that,” the president said of the funding last week.

Biden gave an exasperated one-word answer when asked if he believes border walls work: “No.”

And Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also bashed the idea of a wall.

“I want to address today’s reporting relating to a border wall and be absolutely clear. There is no new administration policy with respect to border walls. From day one, this administration has made clear that a border wall is not the answer. That remains our position, and our position has never wavered,” he said.

Still, the posting on the Federal Register noting the policy change wrote that it was “necessary” to construct both barriers and roads in areas of “high illegal entry.”

Mayorkas criticized contrasts being raised between the register and public statements, saying the register language “is being taken out of context and it does not signify any change in policy whatsoever.”

‘That’s not a plan’

The administration’s announcement on Venezuela came just hours after it quietly posted its plans on the wall and marked the latest in the Biden administration’s back-and-forth on the country.

Earlier this year, the administration barred Venezuelans from seeking asylum at the border, a move that was paired with a new program that allowed those with financial sponsors in the U.S. to apply to get preapproval to be waived in for up to two years through a process known as parole.

When in September the administration announced TPS for Venezuela, it was seen as a way to provide relief to Venezuelans, especially those in crowded shelters otherwise stuck waiting on work permits.

But the announcement of deportations to Venezuela seeks to push back on a rising number arriving outside of the parole program.

According to data compiled by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Customs and Border Protection reported more than 30,000 monthly encounters with Venezuelans in April, May and August of this year, and reporting by CBS News detailed that more than 50,000 Venezuelans showed up in September, representing about a quarter of all border encounters.

The WOLA numbers also show that in August, only 30 percent of Venezuelans encountered at the border showed up at ports of entry, despite the country’s nationals being eligible for the Biden administration’s expanded pathways to legal entry. That month, 22,090 Venezuelans were apprehended by the Border Patrol after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border at nondesignated locations, while 9,373 were encountered at ports of entry by Customs and Border Protection.

“We need to have a plan. We need to have a plan for Central America; we need to have a plan for South America. There really is no plan other than ‘don’t come.’ Those two words are not a plan. That’s not a plan. That’s not a plan,” Gutiérrez said. 

“And you know, there are things you could do pretty quickly — like in Venezuela and Latin American countries, allow people to petition for their asylum locally. But make sure that their answer is given in a timely manner, otherwise people won’t believe it’s legitimate and won’t believe it’s a true way to find relief from the dangers that they confront each and every day.”