‘Cruel and Racist.’ Faith Leaders Say Biden’s Border Shutdown Echoes Trump | Sojourners

‘Cruel and Racist.’ Faith Leaders Say Biden’s Border Shutdown Echoes Trump

President Joe Biden gives remarks on the southern border and asylum seekers in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., after signing an executive order that will temporarily shut down the asylum seeking process. Photo by Aaron Schwartz/Sipa USA

At a White House event hosting border-town mayors on June 4, President Joe Biden announced an executive order that would temporarily shut down the U.S.’s southern border to asylum requests when average daily migrant crossings at legal ports of entry exceed 2,500. The border would then reopen if the average falls below 1,500.

Many faith leaders expressed deep disappointment at the announcement. While they agree something needs to be done about increased numbers at the border, they told Sojourners that Biden’s unilateral actions are the wrong approach. They also expect the executive order to be struck down in the courts.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Global Refuge — formerly Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service — said in an email to Sojourners, “We are deeply concerned about the legality of this executive order and the moral implications of turning away asylum-seeking families desperate for protection.

“This is a troubling departure from an approach that balances the carrot and stick in favor of hardline restrictions,” added Vignarajah. “Our fear is that such restrictions would ultimately deny protection to persecuted individuals and families based on increasingly arbitrary factors, and not on the actual merits of their claim.”

Current Department of Homeland Security data suggests the shutdown could go into effect immediately, though legal challenges to the administration’s actions are expected.

That data also shows the number of overall migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border has been on the decline since December, due largely to Mexico’s increased police and military presence along the border and escalated enforcement and deportation efforts ahead of its own elections on the weekend. But the last time the daily average dipped to 1,500 encounters — the threshold at which the border would reopen for asylum seekers — was during the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic in July 2020.


Migrants seeking asylum in the United States try to cross a razor wire fence deployed to inhibit their crossing into the U.S., as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on June 4, 2024. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Legal challenges expected

Despite those numbers, Biden has sought to toughen his position on the border since Senate Republicans blocked bipartisan immigration legislation earlier this year. Immigration has emerged as a key issue ahead of Nov. 5 elections, when Biden will likely face his predecessor and presumptive Republican nominee Donald J. Trump, whose harder line on immigration appears to be resonating with voters. Biden’s election-year move may also be intended to prevent any potential upswing in the number of crossings closer to the fall elections, when the weather cools and numbers tend to rise.

According to the Associated Press, Biden considered executive action over the previous months, but waited until after Mexico’s presidential elections, held Sunday, to announce the measures. After Mexico elected its first female president, Biden spoke with President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum and said in a statement that he was committed to “advancing the values and interests of both our nations to the benefit of our peoples.”

But legal challenges to the executive order are expected. Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants' Rights Project, told Axios that any “policy that effectively ends asylum protection for people fleeing danger would raise significant legal problems, as it did when Trump tried to end asylum."

"We will be challenging,” the ACLU later said via X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

The order is based on presidential powers outlined in U.S. Code section 212 (f) and 215(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act , the latter of which suspends entry of noncitizens who cross the southern border without documentation. Section 212(f) permits the president broad authority to “suspend the entry” or “impose … restrictions” on specific groups they deem “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” It does not place any restrictions on how long a suspension or restriction may be in place. Section 212(f) last gained notoriety when former President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13769 in January 2017, which included U.S. travel restrictions on seven Muslim-majority nations and became the subject of legal challenges in U.S. federal courts.

‘This is not the right answer'

Along with other immigrant and civil rights groups, faith leaders have criticized Biden for what appears to be his administration’s shift toward border policies that mirror Trump’s.

Gabby Eissner, co-director and community organizer at Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America based in St. Louis, said in an email that Biden’s actions are similar to bans put in place by his predecessor: “cruel and racist.”

“Biden has once again abandoned his promises to depart from the cruelty of the Trump administration,” Eissner said. “This decision to shut down asylum will further mar the journey to the United States with suffering, violence, and death.”

Kelly Ryan, president of Jesuit Refugee Services/USA, said she is increasingly concerned about the danger such measures may pose to migrants and asylum seekers. If the shutdowns were to occur during the heat of the summer months, migrants and asylum seekers would not only face increased exposure to the elements, but trafficking groups seeking to take advantage of their heightened vulnerability.

“Border issues need to be resolved, but there are human beings there in need and we want to limit the harm those people suffer,” Ryan said. “People who seek asylum are victims of abuse [and] torture” she said. “This is not the right answer.”

As the legal battle over Biden’s executive order begins, Ryan said her organization remains committed to accompanying refugees within the U.S.

“We are assisting refugees and immigrants and will continue to do so,” she said. “We want to limit the harm that people suffer and make sure that those who have genuine claims can freely make them and use the legal processes in place and that our laws permit.”

In place of the administration’s more hardline attempts to deny people the right to claim asylum at U.S. ports of entry, Ryan proposed federal and local authorities support the work of faith-based groups like JRS/USA and other nonprofit civil society organizations to “provide critical physical and spiritual care for migrants who have already experienced so much harm.

“We should not slam the door on people who need asylum,” said Ryan. “We need to move away from a pure numbers approach and work to make the immigration process more effective — to get the system right.”

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