U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers listen to President Donald Trump on Jan. 10, 2019, near the U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in McAllen, Texas. Credit: White House/Flickr

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President Joe Biden has announced new immigration policies that could change how migrants seek asylum in the United States.

The administration announced January 5 that it would scale back the use of Title 42, a public health order that controlled border migration due to COVID-19. To continue enforcing border security in lieu of that provision, the administration instead aims to roll out new rules for gaining lawful entry into the United States. 

The announcement included a new humanitarian parole program for Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Haitians seeking temporary protection in the United States. But they would have to apply for protection prior to entering the country. Advocates like Lindsey Greising, an attorney for the Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis, said that if implemented, the administration’s new rules could create a barrier for some immigrants currently seeking asylum in Minnesota. 

“While we are very excited about any additional lawful paths that can be provided for people to safely migrate, it’s important for people to know that seeking asylum is a lawful path,” Greising said. “Folks who are presenting themselves at the border are still following a lawful path to migration. It’s just not the one that the Biden administration would like them to follow.”

One rule echoes former President Donald Trump’s transit ban, Greising said, which would make it harder for migrants to obtain asylum status if they don’t first seek legal protection in the countries they pass through on their way to the United States, for example, seeking asylum in Mexico. The transit ban was struck down in the courts in February 2021. 

As it stands, the Biden administration’s plan would impact a majority of asylum seekers presenting themselves at the southern border, Greising said.* They would have to instead seek asylum protections in the country, or countries, they’re passing through first, she added. 

Greising said the administration has not issued official rules yet. Once issued, the administration is required to take public comments for at least 30 days. It would then review the comments before issuing a final rule.

“If that rulemaking extended to anyone applying for asylum and you have transited through a third country on your way to the U.S. [For example] you’re from El Salvador, and you’ve transited through Guatemala and Mexico and didn’t apply for asylum there,” Greising said. “Your asylum claim would be barred under those proposed rules and you would potentially face deportation.”

The Biden administration did add eligibility for Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Haitian nationals outside of the U.S. to apply for a humanitarian parole program recently designed for Venezuelans. Humanitarian parole allows temporary entry and protections for immigrants fleeing violence, conflict, or other emergencies in their home country. Parolees can obtain work permits and are temporarily protected from deportation, but overall, it is not a formal path to legal permanent status.

Veena Iyer, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said this opportunity is also only available to a narrow group of people.

“Those individuals have to show a passport for their own country, get a U.S. sponsor, and be able to get to the U.S. by air,” Iyer said. “Right there, we’re talking about people of means, people of connections.”

Even within this opportunity, Greising added that political asylum seekers from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Venezuela may have difficulty leaving their home country safely if they do not have a passport or fear using one.

Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Haitians currently living in Minnesota would not benefit from the humanitarian parole program, Greising said.

Iyer added that people in Minnesota from those countries with pending asylum cases will continue to be processed. But the asylum system is currently experiencing an infamous backlog of 1.6 million applications pending in U.S. immigration courts and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Government persecution, violence from paramilitary groups, identity-based attacks on women and LGBTQ+ people, and weather-related disasters are among some of the reasons people from Central and South American countries are seeking asylum in the United States. 

Those appeals are consistent within asylum seekers in Minnesota, Iyer said. And regardless of what policies the Biden administration develops, their struggles will continue.

*Clarification: This article has been changed to reflect which asylum seekers are affected by the Biden administration’s plan.

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal and corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of...