By Kevin Liptak and Priscilla Alvarez, CNN
President Joe Biden on Thursday announced he is expanding a program to accept up to 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela — along with a plan to expel as many migrants from those countries who circumvent US laws — as his administration confronts a surge of migrants at the southern border.
In a speech from the White House, Biden also unveiled plans to visit the US southern border on Sunday, stopping in El Paso, Texas, to meet local officials and address border security issues. It will be his first stop at the border as president.
Biden renewed calls on Congress to pass new immigration laws, arguing his powers to address a growing crisis are limited. He said the politics around border policy and migration often cloud discussions around how to handle migration and crossings at the border.
“It’s important to step back and see the bigger picture,” Biden said, citing the migrants’ desire to seek their own version of the American dream.
The announcements and border visit amount to a surge in presidential attention on an issue that’s increasingly become a political liability for Biden. He has been relentlessly criticized by Republicans and even some border-district Democrats for failing to address record levels of border crossings.
“If the most extreme Republicans continue to demagogue this issue, and reject solutions, I’m left with only one choice … do as much as I can on my own to try to change the atmosphere,” he said.
He said the process he unveiled “is orderly, it’s safe and humane, and it works,” Biden said.
Immigrant advocates, though, immediately denounced the plans, arguing that it risks leaving more migrants in harm’s way in Mexico and is likely to exclude people with no connections to the US.
“Opening up new limited pathways for a small percentage of people does not obscure the fact that the Biden administration is illegally and immorally gutting access to humanitarian protections for the majority of people who have already fled their country seeking freedom and safety,” International Refugee Assistance Project Policy Director Sunil Varghese said in a statement.
The president acknowledged in his remarks the steps he was taking were not enough to remedy the problem but framed them as an effort to use his executive powers to manage the swelling crisis.
“These actions alone that I’m going to announce today aren’t going to fix our entire immigration system, but they can help us a good deal in better managing what is a difficult challenge,” he said.
The announcements come ahead of Biden’s first visit as president to Mexico, where he will discuss migration issues with the country’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The Biden administration is leaning on Mexico and other countries in the Western Hemisphere to provide temporary protections to migrants who have fled their home countries.
“We should all recognize that as long as America is the land of freedom and opportunity, people are going to try to come here,” Biden said in his remarks. “And that’s what many of our ancestors did. And it’s no surprise that it’s happening again today. We can’t stop people from making the journey, but we can require them to come here in an orderly way.”
Administration officials have repeatedly stressed unprecedented migration across the Western Hemisphere as deteriorating conditions were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, prompting thousands of people to move north.
In Texas on Sunday, Biden will arrive at the epicenter of the issue. El Paso began seeing record levels of migrant arrivals beginning a few weeks ago, when anxiety about the scheduled end of the Trump-era pandemic public health rule known as Title 42 prompted thousands of migrants to turn themselves in to border authorities or to cross into the United States illegally in a very short period of time.
Title 42 allows immigration authorities to swiftly return some migrants to Mexico. The policy was scheduled to lift last month, but a Supreme Court ruling kept the rule in place while legal challenges play out in court.
Biden said he wanted to wait until he knew an outcome in the Title 42 legal machinations before traveling to the border, but accused Republicans calling for him to travel there of playing political games.
“They haven’t been serious about this at all,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, who represents El Paso, said in a tweet she’s “excited” to welcome Biden to the city. While she didn’t place a big emphasis on Biden visiting the border, she made clear she welcomed it in recent weeks and urged the federal government to provide assistance to the city.
The announcements Biden made Thursday reflect the administration’s effort to prepare for the end of Title 42, along with putting in place programs to manage the surge of migrants that have coincided with the anticipated end of the rule.
The administration will now accept up to 30,000 migrants per month from Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela under a humanitarian parole program geared toward those nationalities. Those who do not come to the US under that program may be expelled to Mexico under Title 42.
Officials said they would return 30,000 migrants per month who circumvent the legal processes to Mexico.
Migrants from those countries who wish to come to the United States must apply from their home countries first — including through a phone app — before traveling to the US. They must have a US sponsor, and, if they are approved, can travel by plane.
Administration officials previously touted the parole program for Venezuela following its rollout late last year, attributing a drop in border crossings of Venezuelans to the policy. For months, officials have been considering expanding the program to other nationalities to try to manage the flow of migration to the US southern border, culminating in Thursday’s announcement.
The Department of Homeland Security also announced it will propose a new rule placing additional restrictions on migrants seeking asylum in the United States. If approved, the new rule will target asylum seekers who unlawfully entered the US and failed to seek protection in a country through which they traveled on their way to the US.
Those asylum seekers will be subject to a “rebuttable presumption of asylum ineligibility,” except in certain circumstances, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a press conference.
Officials said the announcements are meant to send a message to migrants that they should apply for entry to the United States before leaving their home countries, and that circumventing the process will result in expulsion.
“My message is this: If you’re trying to leave Cuba, Nicaragua or Haiti, have agreed to begin a journey to America, do not — do not — just show up at the border,” Biden said. “Stay where you are and apply legally. Starting today, if you don’t apply through the legal process, you will not be eligible for this new parole program.”
In addition, Biden announced new humanitarian assistance to Mexico and Central America.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
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CNN’s Geneva Sands contributed to this report.