The split screen was striking.
President Joe Biden in Warsaw, Poland, expressed unequivocal support for refugees borne out of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Back home, his administration just hours later announced its toughest policy yet aimed at turning away migrants, many of whom are fleeing persecution and economic ruin in their home countries.
From behind a podium adorning the iconic seal of the US presidency and in front of a set of American, Ukrainian and Polish flags, Biden on Tuesday had delivered a stirring message: America would forever stand with Ukraine on the side of democracy and freedom.
Critical in that fight for freedom, Biden said in remarks ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was taking care of the millions of Ukrainians whose homes, families and livelihoods have been destroyed over the last year.
“Look at what you’ve done so far. Poland is hosting more than 1.5 million refugees from this war. God bless you,” Biden told the crowd gathered at the Royal Castle. “Poland’s generosity – your willingness to open your hearts and your homes – is extraordinary.”
Back at home, that show of appreciation to the Polish people struck a nerve. While the two populations – refugees fleeing war and asylum seekers – are different, the contrast between Biden’s own words aimed at refugees in Europe and his administration’s newly announced policy on the US border did not go unnoticed among immigration and human rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers alike, some of whom were quick to express their dismay.
One senior Democratic aide, who asked for anonymity to speak freely, bluntly described the situation as a “real contradiction.”
“You see the president really highlighting how many refugees Poland has taken,” the aide said. “And then on the same day, there’s a rollout to very actively reduce the number of people who can even access our asylum system.”
One immigration activist went as far as to say that they found some of Biden’s words in the Warsaw speech “deeply offensive,” when heard in the context of his administration’s new move to ban thousands of people – fleeing persecution and hardships in their home countries – from seeking asylum in the US.
“Freedom. There is no sweeter word than freedom. There is no nobler goal than freedom,” Biden had said in Warsaw.
Advocates have noted that some of the very modern protections that are in place for displaced people date back to the atrocities of World War II.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Homeland Security and Justice Departments announced the administration’s most restrictive policy yet aimed at curbing the number of migrants seeking to apply for asylum at the US-Mexico border. The newly proposed rule – which would take effect in May and is reminiscent of a controversial policy dating back to Donald Trump’s administration – largely bars migrants who traveled through other countries on their way to the US southern border from applying for asylum in the US.
It marks a significant departure from longstanding protocol, which allows migrants to request asylum regardless of how they arrived on US soil.
Immigrant advocates and former Biden officials have slammed the new policy, calling it a pivot from Biden’s pledge to restore asylum and a move toward Trump-era policies. Biden has long promised to take a humane approach to the situation at the border – a promise that some critics say the current White House could risk breaking with some of their restrictive border policies.
Anu Joshi, deputy director of the National Political Advocacy Department at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement: “This asylum ban is, at its core, Trump’s asylum ban under a different name.”
Administration officials have cited new programs that allow certain migrants to apply to come to the US and underscored efforts to expand access to legal pathways in their defense of the rule. The administration has also argued that the measure is part of a broader effort to establish order in an immigration system that has been under immense strain, and address migrants with valid claims of asylum, which are determined on a case-by-case basis.
Still, the announcement served yet another reminder of how the situation at the US border has proven to be one of the thorniest political problems for the Biden White House. For the first half of the president’s first term in office, Biden and his top advisers grappled with Title 42 – a Trump-era border restriction that the administration has both publicly criticized and leaned on to quell the flow of migrants arriving at the US border. The policy is the subject of ongoing litigation.
With that policy set to expire in May, finding and enforcing other measures to restrict the thousands of migrants arriving at the US border has only grown in urgency for the White House – particularly as Republican lawmakers have been eager to paint Biden as weak on border enforcement.
But the patchwork of policies rolled out by the administration in recent weeks has put the president squarely at odds with his own allies.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus had previously voiced frustration with the administration when officials previewed the rule last month, saying they were blindsided by the new border policies and disappointed over what they’ve said is a lack of direct engagement by the White House.
The administration tried to correct course in private meetings last week with lawmakers about the anticipated release of the new asylum rule. But in one closed-door meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Democratic Hispanic senators maintained their strong opposition and expressed their ongoing concerns, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
Among those in the room was Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey. The senator – who had previously written a letter to the president to share his concerns – condemned the proposed asylum rule on Tuesday in a joint statement with Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, and Alex Padilla of California.
“We are deeply disappointed that the administration has chosen to move forward with publishing this proposed rule, which only perpetuates the harmful myth that asylum seekers are a threat to this nation. In reality, they are pursuing a legal pathway in the United States,” the statement said.
“We have an obligation to protect vulnerable migrants under domestic and international law and should not leave vulnerable migrants stranded in countries unable to protect them,” it continued.
In a statement, Luis Miranda, a Homeland Security spokesperson, said the proposal “is part of a first-of-its-kind plan that expands legal pathways and has already reduced illegal immigration all while allowing thousands of individuals to lawfully enter the United States without having to put their lives in the hands of smugglers.”