Is the Biden administration's strategy at the U.S.-Mexico border working?

It's a question many U.S. voters are weighing as the country nears a rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.

Trump has vowed to be more aggressive on immigration in a second term, saying he would crack down on migrants and asylum-seekers at the border as well as immigrants already living in the country. In his first term, Trump enacted policies that separated thousands of children from their parents and ordered migrant asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases were evaluated.

Biden meanwhile continued some Trump-era policies and has dealt with a record-number of apprehensions at the border during his presidency and a backlogged immigration system. He's also subject to competing criticisms that he is either too soft on immigration or that he has been too harsh on people trying to escape instability in their home countries.

As part of NPR's We, The Voters 2024 election series, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the person tasked with executing Biden's vision on immigration, sat for an interview with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep.

Mayorkas is the first Latino to hold the post since DHS' creation in 2003. He oversees enforcement agencies U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that processes applications for immigration benefits like green cards and citizenship.

Earlier this year, Mayorkas was impeached by House Republicans who alleged that his use of parole to allow some migrants into the country was unlawful. Those charges were quickly dismissed by the Senate.

Here's what Mayorkas had to say about the work his department is doing at the border.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Steve Inskeep: When it comes to asylum-seekers who have reached this country, what is your fundamental goal?

Alejandro Mayorkas: What we want to do and what we do is enforce the law. And what that means is that if someone has a claim for humanitarian relief, if they claim asylum and their claim prevails, they have established a legal basis to remain in the United States. If their claim fails, then they are to be removed from the United States. We enforce the law.

Inskeep: Do you also have a policy goal to cause fewer people to arrive, fewer people to get in, fewer people to stay?

Mayorkas: Well, our goal is to eliminate to the fullest extent possible the phenomenon of what is commonly termed "irregular migration." People placing their lives and their life savings in the hands of smugglers to arrive in between the ports of entry, which is dangerous and also feeds a criminal network. And instead, we want them to use lawful pathways to make claims for relief under United States law. That is why we have built more lawful pathways in this administration than in any other time, and we are seeking to disincentivize arriving in between the ports of entry at our dangerous southern border.

Inskeep: Is it fair to say that this isn't working, given the sheer numbers of people who've continued to come to the southern border?

Mayorkas: No, it is not.

Inskeep: You think it's working?

Mayorkas: I think it is working.

Inskeep: What's the evidence that the Biden administration's approach is working?

Mayorkas: One, the numbers have decreased. Migration is a dynamic phenomenon, so the numbers increase and they decrease. But the numbers have decreased. We have also removed or returned an historic number of people more this year than I think in any year since 2011.

Inskeep: During our reporting, we talked with John Modlin, who's the chief patrol officer for the Tucson sector, a very busy sector of the border right now. He said the increase began in 2021, just as the Biden administration was taking office, and that migrants say they believed the laws would be different and that they would be allowed in. I know the administration tried to message differently and told people not to come, but why do you think that didn't work well?

Mayorkas: Let's take a step back. The number of encounters in 2019 exceeded the number of encounters in 2018 by almost 100%.

Inskeep: Meaning there was a big increase during the Trump administration?

Mayorkas: Absolutely. I won't have the precise numbers, but I'm going to ballpark it. There were maybe about 560,000 encounters in 2018 and maybe close to a million in 2019.

Inskeep: Sure, there have been waves. But in this case we have people telling Border Patrol they came because they thought Biden would let them in.

Mayorkas: Well, remember what we are battling. We are battling sophisticated smuggling organizations that peddle in disinformation. And so that is a reality that we have to counter, and we seek to counter that with accurate information.

Inskeep: Listening to you, it seems to me that I could define your policy difference with Republicans in part in this way: You want people to come lawfully. Republicans don't want people to come or not so many people to come. Is that a fair description?

Mayorkas: Certainly there are some who don't want anyone to come lawfully or otherwise.

Inskeep: Or they just feel the asylum seekers specifically are taking advantage of the system. Let's talk about the asylum-seekers and not other kinds of immigrants who may come here legally.

Mayorkas: Our goal is to have legitimate asylum-seekers, individuals with successful claims to be able to avail themselves of humanitarian relief outside the hands of smugglers.

Inskeep: Do you think most people who ask for asylum have a legitimate case?

Mayorkas: I think that empirically, when one takes a look at the numbers who have claimed and the numbers who succeed, I would respectfully submit that the majority do not qualify.

Inskeep: So most of them, if it got right down to it, probably should not have come, if you were able to give them advice?

Mayorkas: If I were able to give them advice, of course. But I don't mean to diminish the desperation that fuels their travel and their flight because, even though they may not qualify for asylum, that doesn't mean that they don't legitimately want a better life for themselves and their children, their loved ones, that they are not seeking to escape generalized violence. When a mother, when loving parents are fearful of sending their daughter to school because the walk is so precarious and they actually take. The leap to send that daughter alone to traverse another country, only to reach our southern border. I don't want to diminish what that means in the lives of people. But the fact of the matter is, if they don't qualify for relief, they won't stay.

Inskeep: We spoke to Republican Arizona congressman Juan Ciscomani, who was born in Mexico. He says it's taking too long for legal immigration applications to be processed, while the border is "wide open" for arriving migrants. Is there something unfair about the current state of the law that allows people to come and say, "I want asylum" and they usually get several years before a court hearing?

Mayorkas: I don't think the 720,000 people that we've removed to return would consider the border open, so I would respectfully disagree with him.

The bipartisan legislation would have eliminated the years-long process between encounter and final adjudication in our ability to remove that individual. And I would respectfully wish that the congressman had actually supported that bipartisan legislation rather than opposed it. If people really want to fix the system, then they should advance solutions rather than really dwell on the problem and frankly perpetuate it by declining to implement solutions.

The congresswoman makes a legitimate claim that individuals who are seeking other lawful processes, their cases are taking longer because we have had to allocate resources to the challenge at the border. That's not the only reason that the duration of time has been extended. You know, the prior administration gutted our legal immigration system, financially gutted. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. If they had actually promulgated a fee rule that properly resourced that agency, the backlogs would not have accumulated as they have.

Editor's note: Mayorkas referred to a failed bipartisan border that lost Republican support in the Senate after Trump opposed it. The deal that would have allotted $20 billion for border security and made it tougher for people to claim asylum.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.