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Biden’s State of the Union on immigration? Not great.

The Biden administration has struggled with its messaging on immigration, the majority of the time treating the contentious issue as a political liability rather than sticking to a coherent, humane approach to border management.

President Biden walked with US Border Patrol agents along a stretch of the US-Mexico border in El Paso on Jan. 8.DOUG MILLS/NYT

During his State of the Union address last year, President Biden mentioned “immigration” four times.

“If we are to advance liberty and justice, we need to secure the border and fix the immigration system. We can do both,” Biden said. “We’re securing commitments and supporting partners in South and Central America to host more refugees. … Provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, those on temporary status, farm workers, and essential workers.”

Immigration reform is “not only the right thing to do — it’s the economically smart thing to do,” Biden said. “Let’s get it done once and for all.”


None of that happened. As Biden heads to the US Capitol Tuesday night to deliver his 2023 State of the Union address, let’s not forget about the president’s disappointing record on immigration: His far-reaching promises on the issue remain unfulfilled.

The Senate did try to pass a bipartisan compromise on immigration at the 11th hour in December. It was the closest Congress has come to doing so in about a decade. But, at least publicly, there was no vigorous support from the Biden administration urging lawmakers to prioritize the deal. Still, for a few hopeful days at the end of the year, the impossible seemed finally attainable.

And yet, the deal that would have given 2 million “Dreamers” a path to citizenship and secured resources to expand and expedite the processing of asylum seekers at border points, among other major reforms, fell through just as quickly as it emerged.

The reality is that for the past two years the Biden administration has struggled with its messaging on immigration, the majority of the time treating the contentious issue as a political liability rather than sticking to a coherent, humane approach to border management that would match his campaign promises.


For instance, in his first year in office, Biden dragged his feet on his vow to stop “bullying legitimate asylum seekers” and instead kept Title 42, the Trump-era public health policy that effectively shut down the US-Mexico border to asylum seekers. Last spring the Biden administration announced it would finally wind down Title 42, but ongoing legal challenges from the GOP have prevented the president from doing so. Publicly, Biden has said he doesn’t like Title 42. Yet his administration recently announced an expansion of it. Not surprisingly, Biden has come across as hypocritical and shifting on the controversial policy.

At the US-Mexico border, Biden has faced a rise in the number of displaced people seeking asylum. They’re fleeing Haiti, Venezuela, and other beleaguered countries. But, contrary to what Republicans argue, these migrants are not coming because the “Biden administration does not have operational control of the border,” like House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, the MAGA Republican from Ohio, noted recently in a hearing. These asylum seekers are fleeing because of historically bad humanitarian conditions in their home countries.

Rather than face such a stark reality, GOP members of Congress seem interested only in immigration show trials, such as the silly effort to impeach Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas over his alleged mismanagement of the border.

To be sure, Biden has taken welcome steps recently to handle the high migration flows. He expanded the use of the humanitarian parole program to offer an orderly pathway for immigrants from Ukraine, Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua to come to the United States as long as they have a US-based sponsor. It’s not a perfect program — technical snafus have plagued the application process — but it’s a step in the right direction. Ultimately, as the Globe editorial board put it recently, “The number of immigrants the United States takes in shouldn’t be limited to the number of Americans willing to offer financial support.”


Overall, at the State of the Union speech, Biden must “lean into pro-immigration policies and draw a sharp contrast with what we see and hear from Republicans,” Héctor Sánchez Barba, executive director and CEO of the nonprofit Mi Familia Vota, said during a press call last week. More than anything, Biden must recognize that the US economy’s struggles with inflation and labor shortages are inextricably linked with immigration policy. There are two job openings per every unemployed person looking for work, according to Rebecca Shi, executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition. Indeed, the message Biden should emphasize is simple: It’s the economy, stupid — and more immigrants.

Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.