Migrants form a line to enter the U.S. and seek asylum through El Chaparral port of entry in San Diego at the Mexico border on Dec. 22, 2022. Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for CalMatters

President Biden’s long-predicted executive actions restricting asylum claims at the U.S.-Mexico border could take effect at midnight in remote parts of California where some migrants gather in open-air camps to await federal processing.

White House officials argue the new measures announced today will bring much-needed order to the border, while advocates for migrants argue the changes could cause the California border to become more chaotic and deadly as migrants seek increasingly remote areas to cross undetected and illegally.  

Border crossings are already exceeding the average of 2,500 daily over a seven-day period that triggers the new rules. That means the order and accompanying Department of Homeland Security interim rule could immediately allow border agents to instantly return migrants across the border into Mexico or deport them to their home countries within hours or days — without considering their asylum claims. 

The new measures are meant to discourage migrants from crossing the border irregularly or illegally. “It’s going to change the calculus of those intending to cross,” a senior White House official told reporters this morning. 

If migrants know they’re likely to be returned to Mexico or deported rather than allowed into the United States while their asylum claim is processed, they’re less likely to pay a coyote thousands of dollars to make the dangerous trek, the official argued. 

But advocates for migrants say Biden’s order unravels long-standing international agreements that allow anyone who gets a foot on U.S. soil the right to seek safety through an asylum claim. 

Migrant smuggling routes have shifted west in recent months towards California as Texas uses militarized force with state agents and the Texas National Guard to secure its border, and heat has claimed the lives of at least four migrants near El Paso, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 

While California mayors and lawmakers were noticeably absent at the White House announcement, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria issued a statement supporting Biden’s decision. Like the president, he highlighted Congress’ lack of action on the hot-button political issue in a presidential election year.

“In the face of Congressional Republicans’ continued inaction on legislation to help improve the situation at our southwest border, President Biden is acting decisively. The current system is failing both local communities and asylum seekers; the fact remains we need comprehensive immigration reform,” Gloria said.

A spokesperson for Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a similar statement supporting the president: “As President Biden affirmed today, executive actions aren’t enough — Republicans must do their job. Congress needs to act on the bipartisan border deal, and finally work with President Biden to pass a pathway for citizenship and fix our deeply outdated immigration system.” 

For several weeks this year, San Diego became the busiest location for migrant arrivals along the southern border for the first time in 25 years. For example, 8,303 migrants were apprehended in the first week of May, according to the Border Patrol. By comparison, San Diego area Border Patrol agents took 3,311 people into custody during the entire month of May in 2020. 

Though some framed Biden’s executive action as “closing the border,” it does not apply to the millions of people who legally live in border communities — or the some 150,000 people who daily cross back and forth between Baja California and California for work, school, medical care or shopping. 

Gloria was invited to the White House for today’s announcement but had a prior commitment, a spokesperson said. The mayors for the border cities of Calexico and Imperial Beach said they were not invited.

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat and outspoken critic of the action, accused Biden of reviving former President Donald Trump’s “asylum ban.” 

“President Biden has undermined American values and abandoned our nation’s obligations to provide people fleeing persecution, violence, and authoritarianism with an opportunity to seek refuge in the U.S.,” Padilla said in a statement. 

According to Adam Isacson, the director of the defense oversight program at the Washington Office on Latin America, the 2,500 threshold has been exceeded in 110 of the past 296 months, and in every month since February 2021. 

The right to seek asylum between ports of entry would not be restored until migrant apprehensions drop below a daily average of 1,500 per day, which has not happened since July 2020. 

The American Civil Liberties Union immediately said it planned to challenge the order in court, as it successfully did when Trump issued a similar order under the same legal authority, known as 212f, which allows the president “to suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens” whenever “the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.”