Former Democratic Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke rebuked President Biden’s handling of asylum policy, saying the administration’s actions are not living up to his 2020 campaign promises.
O’Rourke told a panel convened Thursday by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics that he was inspired by Biden’s 2020 messaging in contrast with the Trump administration’s border policies.
“When Joe Biden was running in 2020, he ran with such incredible moral clarity on this issue: ‘We will no longer put kids in cages because they’re not animals, we will no longer tear babies from the breasts of their mothers,’ literally what Trump was doing in his family separation policy,” O’Rourke said.
“‘We’re going to restore the soul of America, and we’re going to live up to our promise.’ Man, that was inspiring to me. I needed to hear that, living on the border and as someone who really cares about that.”
But O’Rourke said despite Biden being successful “on some counts” and a “night-and-day” difference in rhetoric compared to Trump, the president is not living up to his 2020 promises.
“Biden is not inspiring, I don’t think, any acts of political terror or the kind of slaughter that we saw in El Paso, and yet on other counts, he’s really failing us,” he said.
O’Rourke, a former three-term congressman who rose to national prominence and mounted unsuccessful Senate, presidential and gubernatorial campaigns in 2018, 2020 and 2022, respectively, specifically took aim at Biden’s asylum policies.
While the Biden administration has reversed several of the Trump administration’s border policies, it has also drawn fire from immigrant advocates for its “carrot-and-stick” approach, attempting to open new pathways to legally enter the country while making it more difficult to claim asylum without prior authorization.
Although Biden administration officials have lauded the policy’s success amid a massively complex migration phenomenon in the Americas, advocates have ranged from dismayed to irate that the administration has not prioritized humanitarian assistance above all other political considerations.
O’Rourke called the policy an “asylum ban” — a term that’s been adopted by many advocates but that the Biden administration flatly rejects — asking why people would risk everything to come to the United States “when they cannot stay” in their own countries.
“More migrants have died this year than any year on record. And last year more migrants had died than any year on record,” O’Rourke said. “They’re drowning, they’re dying of dehydration and exposure in the desert, and these are little babies and mothers and f—ing human beings who deserve to be treated that way.
“And when you ban them from coming to this country lawfully and when they know [that] to stay in Honduras, or El Salvador or Haiti is to die in Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti, and they have no other choice but to try to come into this country between ports of entry, risking drowning and death and imprisonment, and yes, some level of separation that is still taking place in this country.”
Although the Biden administration has aggressively expanded some forms of relief for migrants, including expansions of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program and the use of immigration parole for certain new arrivals, many of those actions have come only after repeated pleas from its allies in immigration advocacy.
The Biden administration has often referred to congressional inaction as a key source of the mismatch between the realities of 21st-century migration and U.S. policy, a situation O’Rourke recognized.
“And look, I understand he has an argument to make when he says, ‘Look, this Congress will not work with me and you know, the majority in the House of Representatives aren’t going to do anything to improve the situation at our border to treat people with the humanity that they deserve,'” he said.
But O’Rourke noted that Democrats held majorities in both chambers of Congress in the first two years of Biden’s term and did not prioritize immigration reform, and he said Biden could move faster on granting parole and work authorization to new arrivals.
O’Rourke’s demands underscore the Biden administration’s bifurcated political pathways on the border, as many Democrats call to prioritize the humanitarian aspects of border security, while others, including some big city mayors, have essentially asked Biden to slow the pace of new arrivals.
According to O’Rourke, the smart political play is to lean into the humanitarian message of moral clarity to inspire voters to come out in 2024.
“It is no secret that Democratic voters are unexcited about Biden — that’s putting it politely — it is no secret, thanks to the poll that we just read in The New York Times on Sunday, that young voters especially are leaving his banner in droves,” he said.
“Now will they vote for Donald Trump? Will they vote for RFK Jr.? Will they not vote at all? I don’t know. But let’s give them a reason to vote for the president. Something bold, something big, something that matches the rhetoric that he used in 2020 and inspires voters in 2024 is what’s needed right now.”