How the Border Crisis Shattered Biden’s Immigration Hopes

On President Biden’s first day in office, he paused nearly all deportations. He vowed to end the harsh practices of the Trump administration, show compassion toward those wishing to come to the United States and secure the southern border.

For Mr. Biden, it was a matter of principle. He wanted to show the world that the United States was a humane nation, while also demonstrating to his fellow citizens that government could work again.

But those early promises have largely been set aside as chaos engulfs the border and imperils Mr. Biden’s re-election hopes. The number of people crossing into the United States has reached record levels, more than double than in the Trump years. The asylum system is still all but broken.

On Friday, in a dramatic turnaround from those early days, the president implored Congress to grant him the power to shut down the border so he could contain one of the largest surges of uncontrolled immigration in American history.

“If given that authority,” Mr. Biden said in a statement, “I would use it the day I sign the bill into law.”

Some of the circumstances that have created the crisis are out of Mr. Biden’s control, such as the collapse of Venezuela, a surge in migration around the world and the obstinance of Republicans who have tried to thwart his efforts to address the problems. They refused to provide resources, blocked efforts to update laws and openly defied federal officials charged with maintaining security and order along the 2,000-mile border.

But an examination of Mr. Biden’s record over the last three years by The New York Times, based on interviews with more than 35 current and former officials and others, shows that the president has failed to overcome those obstacles. The result is a growing humanitarian crisis at the border and in major cities around the country. Many voters now say immigration is their top concern, and they do not have confidence that Mr. Biden is addressing it.

A veteran of the decades-long search for a bipartisan immigration compromise by the late Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, the president sought balance. He created legal pathways for migrants and began rebuilding the refugee system even as he embraced some of former President Donald J. Trump’s more restrictive tactics. But those efforts were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people arriving at the border, and at times Mr. Biden failed to appreciate the growing anger in both parties.

During the 2020 campaign, Mr. Biden said he would be an antidote to his predecessor’s anti-immigrant approach. But he has presided over a fierce struggle inside the White House between advisers who favored more enforcement and those who pushed to be more welcoming. That debate played out as the country also shifted. After years of inflation, economic suffering and political polarization, the public is divided about whether the United States — which is home to more immigrants than any other nation — should absorb more.

Mr. Biden went from a 2020 candidate who vowed to “end Trump’s assault on the dignity of immigrant communities” to a 2024 president who is “willing to make significant compromises on the border.” That shift can be seen through the prism of five key moments that document the administration’s shifting approach on a defining issue of his presidency and of the next election.

When children from Central America started crossing by the thousands in spring 2021, many very young and seeking to join a relative already in the United States, the president’s first instinct was compassion. In a meeting in the Roosevelt Room, he ordered his top aides to travel to the border to see the desperate, overcrowded conditions.

He also demanded to see the pictures. Mr. Biden believed he was elected to deal with immigration in a humane manner. The sight of thousands of migrant children jammed into crowded border detention facilities was not what most people imagined under a Biden presidency.

It was the first big test of his immigration agenda, and of whether the more welcoming approach he promised would work. During his campaign for the White House in 2020, Mr. Biden pledged to pause deportations, limit raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, invest in the asylum system and close private immigration prisons. On his first day, Mr. Biden had proposed a vast immigration bill to Congress that would have provided a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants already living in America.

But Republicans shot back. They declared Mr. Biden’s immigration overhaul dead on arrival and warned that human traffickers and smugglers would funnel migrants to America with the false promise that the new president was throwing open the border — a risk that some inside the administration agreed with, according to several current and former U.S. officials.

The president dismissed the criticism. He had never been a Democrat who wanted to abolish ICE or decriminalize border crossings. But longtime aides described him as determined to prove to voters that government can work, especially after the chaos of the Trump presidency.

The images of the children in overcrowded camps were the exact opposite of what he wanted to project. At one point, he exploded in frustration about the chaos at the border: Who do I need to fire, he demanded, to fix this?

In the West Wing, the president’s advisers held urgent talks about whether to send the children back to Mexico, but Mr. Biden said no, according to a senior official who was in the meeting.

Sending them back, the president said, would be unconscionable and inhumane.

Mr. Biden’s more welcoming stance was quickly tested.

In April 2021, he had expanded the number of Haitians who could stay in the United States after fleeing gang violence in their country. But the administration also decided that if a surge of Haitians arrived at the border, the United States would send them right back, using a Covid-era authority known as Title 42.

It did not take long. During a 16-day period in September 2021, 19,752 Haitians crossed into a makeshift camp under the Del Rio International Bridge in Texas.

Mr. Biden quickly condemned shocking images of Border Patrol officers on horseback rounding up migrants and promised that the officers “would pay.”

But there was also intense pressure from the White House to clear the bridge, one former official said. National security advisers in the West Wing held calls twice a day to coordinate the administration’s efforts to deal with the fallout from a humanitarian crisis that swiftly became a political crisis as well.

Many of the Haitians were allowed to stay in the United States, with notices to appear in immigration court, because of limits on the Border Patrol’s capacity to remove them from the country. But thousands were deported. On some days, there were as many as 39 flights, packed with migrants, heading to Port-au-Prince, the capital.

The administration called it “decompression.”

The rapid deportations exposed a split in the administration that would only grow over time.

People close to Mr. Biden said he had always supported enforcing the law. Some of his top aides, such as Susan E. Rice, who served as his domestic policy adviser until last summer, and Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, embodied that tough-minded approach.

“Migrants and asylum seekers absolutely should not believe those in the region peddling the idea that the border will suddenly be fully open to process everyone on Day 1,” Ms. Rice had said early on in Mr. Biden’s presidency.

But others in the administration saw the treatment of Haitians as a betrayal of the values that Mr. Biden had promised to uphold.

In meetings, advisers complained that some migrants had been told to board deportation flights without a chance to ask for asylum and without being told where they were going.

“Originally they said, ‘We’re going to get rid of Trump administration stuff,’” said Daniel Foote, the president’s former envoy to Haiti, who resigned in protest after the administration sent the Haitians back. “But then they realized that this is the only way we can keep people out.”

Pressure was building on Mr. Biden to find a solution.

He looked to the one place that could pass meaningful new immigration laws, but has not done so in decades: Congress.

Republicans in Washington largely ignored Mr. Biden’s entreaties to come to the negotiating table to help fix the immigration system. And out in the country, G.O.P. officials came up with their own plan.

During a news conference in April 2022, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas vowed to “take the border to President Biden” by busing thousands of migrants to Democratic-led cities.

It was a stunt, but it worked.

Buses arrived in downtown Los Angeles in mid-June. They dropped off migrants in front of the home of Vice President Kamala Harris in September and again on Christmas Eve. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida sent a planeload of people to Martha’s Vineyard, a vacation getaway for liberal elites. Buses streamed into New York City.

Democratic leaders were overwhelmed. They called for the president to step in, saying the influx was a drain on their resources. Mayor Eric Adams of New York said that without a federal bailout and clampdown at the border, swelling migration “will destroy New York City.”

The people demanding border security were no longer just Republicans like Mr. Trump or Stephen Miller, the former president’s top immigration adviser. They were members of Mr. Biden’s own party.

The administration scrambled to meet the Democratic demands, providing more money and speeding up the processing of work permits.

But the busing of migrants clearly shifted the discourse around the issue. And polling began to show growing support in the United States for border measures once denounced by Democrats and championed by Mr. Trump.

Not long after New Year’s Day in 2023, Mr. Biden delivered the only immigration speech of his presidency. It was notable in part because the president rarely used the power of his office to press for change the way he did for climate change, tax fairness or support for Ukraine, allowing Republicans to paint him as weak and ineffective.

But in his speech from the Roosevelt Room, he announced tough new restrictions on asylum, the system of laws that has for decades established the United States as a place of refuge for displaced and fearful people across the globe.

Mr. Biden repeatedly accused “extreme Republicans” of blocking his efforts to modernize the nation’s immigration laws, refusing to provide billions of dollars for border security and rejecting bipartisan negotiations.

“They can keep using immigration to try to score political points,” he said, “or they can help solve the problem.”

The president’s speech was the culmination of months of frustration and debate inside the administration on how to confront the crisis. But the reaction underscored the difficulties: Human rights groups condemned it as too harsh. Republicans said it was still too lenient.

Mr. Biden was responding to the largest movement of displaced people since World War II, with millions fleeing economic decline, political instability and gang violence — from Central America, South America, Africa and elsewhere.

It was not, as Mr. Trump often claimed, caravans full of criminals or terrorists. But neither was it people who all had legitimate reasons for claiming asylum to stay in the United States permanently.

Some advisers who tried to appeal to Mr. Biden’s heart on the issue eventually left the administration, feeling disillusioned. The ones who remained encouraged the president to listen to his head: The situation at the border was getting worse, and more enforcement was needed.

Republicans said the new rules were still too weak, noting that Mr. Biden had voluntarily dropped enforcement of the Title 42 authority. Immigration activists criticized Mr. Biden, too, saying he was no better than Mr. Trump.

The impact of the political shift soon became obvious, as Republicans on Capitol Hill demanded a crackdown on the border in exchange for their votes on one of Mr. Biden’s top priorities: sending more military aid to Ukraine.

Three years earlier, Democrats might have balked. But not anymore. Deeply frustrated Democratic lawmakers from Massachusetts vented to Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, in a closed-door session at the Capitol in October 2023.

Their message to the secretary was driven by the financial costs of dealing with the migrants in their state: You have to do something. This has got to stop.

Mr. Biden soon sensed an opening to capitalize on the changing dynamic, and on Dec. 6 he made it official.

“I am willing to make significant compromises on the border,” he said. “We need to fix the broken border system. It is broken.”

After nearly three years of Mr. Biden’s presidency, just about every week brought new evidence of the dysfunction.

In New Mexico, a local high school went on lockdown several times a month because of migrants swarming across school grounds. In Texas, homeowners woke up to find migrants sleeping in their garages.

In December 2023, border officers abruptly closed the bridge carrying freight trains from Mexico into Texas at Eagle Pass. It turned out conductors were being bribed to slow down as the trains made their way north through Mexico, allowing thousands of migrants to jump on and cross the border.

Closing the bridge was a last-ditch effort to contain the border, and it was failing. In Eagle Pass, a tent-like facility designed to hold 1,000 detained migrants was housing 6,000. And the number of people coming into the United States was higher than it had ever been: In December, more than 11,000 migrants were crossing the border each day.

Under pressure from angry rail executives and frustrated local officials, Mr. Biden called President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico. Mexico that month had suspended its own migrant deportations, which help prevent people from traveling north toward the United States, because of a lack of funding. That had to change, Mr. Biden said, according to several U.S. officials.

Mr. López Obrador urged the president to send a delegation right away to discuss the issue, prompting a last-minute scramble as Mr. Biden’s top diplomat and several others abandoned holiday plans.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who had spent much of the year in Ukraine and the Middle East, rushed to Mexico City with Mr. Mayorkas and Liz Sherwood-Randall, the president’s homeland security adviser. They returned a day later with a commitment from Mexico to resume enforcement — a relatively small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

As he campaigns for a second term in the White House, Mr. Biden has become unapologetic in his calls for more, and stricter, enforcement at the border.

“The American people overwhelmingly agree with what President Biden underlined in his Day 1 reform plan,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, “that our immigration system is broken and we have an imperative to secure the border and treat migrants with dignity.”

On Saturday, as he fought to save a bipartisan immigration deal from collapse in Congress, Mr. Biden made a forceful case for a sweeping crackdown on immigration during a campaign event in South Carolina.

He appears ready to run more as a leader determined to keep people out and less as a champion of displaced people.

“If that bill were the law today,” Mr. Biden said to applause, “I’d shut down the border right now and fix it quickly.”