September 23, 2023 - 8:00am

Scenes of chaos on the southern border of the United States have been a recurrent spectacle of the Biden administration. But in recent weeks, the challenge has become a lot worse: big cities and small towns across the country are experiencing a significant influx of migrants.

In order to help some municipalities and states deal with the surge of asylum seekers, the Biden administration has announced that it will extend “temporary protected status” (TPS) to Venezuelan migrants who entered the country prior to 31 July 2023. This decision reveals the competing imperatives of the White House’s approach to migration — and suggests how Biden’s policies may create incentives that heighten the border crisis.

Currently, select nationals from 16 countries can receive TPS. Washington is hostile to Nicolás Maduro’s autocratic regime in Venezuela, so TPS has been extended to Venezuelan nationals in the past. Over 240,000 Venezuelan nationals currently have TPS, and the Department of Homeland Security estimates that another 472,000 people may qualify under this extension of the programme. Receiving TPS grants immediate work authorisation, which is in part why this announcement has been greeted with acclaim by Democratic mayors and governors.

An unprecedented surge of migrants has put strain on the states and cities with more expansive social welfare programmes. This can be an expensive proposition: New York’s Mayor Eric Adams estimated recently that the migrant surge could cost the city more than $12 billion over three years. Policymakers hope that the granting of TPS will allow more migrants to earn an income and reduce their need to rely on government programmes.

However, by holding out the prospect of a work permit, the expansion of TPS may encourage more would-be migrants (from Venezuela and elsewhere) to make the dangerous journey across the southern border. According to one analysis, the number of Venezuelan migrants spiked after DHS announced TPS protections for citizens of that troubled country in March 2021. 

This announcement compounds other immigration policy incentives of the Biden years. Earlier this year, the Biden administration ended the use of Title 42, which had been implemented during the pandemic to turn back border-crossers. In September 2021, DHS head Alejandro Mayorkas issued a memo essentially suspending immigration enforcement against most people who had entered the United States illegally before November 2020. Under current policy, asylum-seekers are given long-distant court dates to plead their cases, and a lack of interior enforcement provides a further incentive to ignore immigration laws.

There are considerable political risks here for Biden. A CBS News poll from earlier in September found that 66% of voters disapprove of how he has handled immigration — his weakest issue other than inflation. Along with economic anxieties, the migrant crisis could add to doubts in the electorate that Biden will be able to restore the “normalcy” that he campaigned on in 2020. And that could pose dangers to his reelection bid.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.