By Priscilla Alvarez and Kevin Liptak, CNN
President Joe Biden is facing increasing pressure from US allies and the travel industry to lift pandemic-era restrictions barring entry to the country, leading to tense conversations among administration officials over the health and political risks of opening up too soon.
A tangled web of Covid-19 border restrictions has limited who can travel to the US. One of the rules bars migrants from seeking asylum. Others prevent foreigners from visiting family. And tourism from abroad has been effectively halted while the restrictions remain in place.
The ongoing discussions combine two issues Biden has grappled with since taking office — immigration and the coronavirus pandemic — at a time when both are under heavy political scrutiny. On Wednesday, the administration moved to delay opening up nonessential travel with Mexico and Canada until August 21.
The stakes are high for Biden, who officials say is trying to avoid a situation where restrictions are lifted only to be put in place again in the future. Meanwhile, liberals and conservatives alike are scrutinizing the President’s immigration policies and the Trump-era restrictions that remain in place.
When questioned about the timing for reopening borders, the White House has pointed to interagency working groups that were formed last month. Overseen by the White House Covid-19 response team and the National Security Council, the groups include representatives from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention along with officials from the Departments of State, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and Transportation.
The American officials were partnered with representatives from the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada and Mexico and have met several times to discuss the reopening situation since the administration announced them at the start of Biden’s first foreign trip in June. There have also been multiple smaller group conversations in between those larger meetings to discuss specific issues, like the epidemiological situation, variants, surveillance, and vaccination efforts and plans for changing travel restrictions, a White House official told CNN.
But some people familiar with the working groups have questioned their effectiveness, as other countries begin to open to Americans with little clarity over whether the US will reciprocate. One source familiar with the discussions described “paralysis among agencies” over next steps.
“There are ongoing discussions between the working groups and, of course, updates and briefings with our health and medical experts about what it is safe to do,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday when asked about when the US might reopen its borders to travelers. “We will be guided by the science, and I don’t have any prediction of what the timeline looks like.”
Asked why Canada had reopened its borders while the US has not, she said: “We rely on the guidance of our health and medical experts, not on the actions of other countries.”
Last week, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel pressured him for answers on reopening travel during Oval Office talks, Biden said he’d have more to announce in the “next several days.”
The lack of answers is fueling frustration among members of Biden’s party, who are imploring the administration to ease restrictions.
“It is extremely frustrating that the United States government has failed to reciprocate current family exemptions already allowed by the Canadian government and failed to show a lack of urgency to make any progress on this side of the border toward lifting restrictions,” said Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins of New York, who chairs the Congressional Northern Border Caucus, in a statement Monday after Canada announced it was reopening to vaccinated Americans.
Among the complicating factors is whether lifting one set of restrictions could undercut the argument for leaving others in place, according to a source familiar with the matter, spurring deliberations among officials worried about the threat of variants as the pace of vaccinations in the United States slows. Those concerns have also spilled over to discussions over the wind down of a Trump-era pandemic policy along the US-Mexico border.
The administration may now delay winding down the policy due to increasing concerns about Covid-19 variants. The administration had been considering ending the public health order that’s allowed for the swift expulsion of migrants at the border in a phased approach by the end of July, starting with families. That timeline is now in flux.
White House officials rejected the notion that hesitancy over easing restrictions was politically motivated, particularly in regard to the Trump-era public health order that immigrant advocates say has put migrants in harm’s way.
“We’re not the first in this administration to say it’s not sticking around for any longer than it’s needed,” one official said, citing vaccination rates of people migrating and transmission rates in origin countries as considerations. “There’s still a public health need.”
“This is all a process, things don’t happen overnight and you have to ensure the process is robust and proper and due diligence is taken,” the official added.
Still, lawmakers, immigrant advocates and health experts have called the basis of the public health order, which has led to the expulsion of more than half a million migrants, into question, arguing instead the order is political in nature. Similarly, border mayors are clamoring for the administration to provide answers on when cross-border travel can fully resume.
“I think Biden is doing a great job on the economy. We’re going to do a great job on transportation and other things,” said Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who’s criticized the administration’s handling of the border. “But on immigration, they’re not doing a very good job on immigration.”
“They need to tell us what the end game is. How many people are they going to let in?” he added.
Those pressures are colliding with a recent court ruling that blocked new applications for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, reigniting the push for immigration reform.
Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas came out in support of creating permanent protections for so-called Dreamers and certain other groups of immigrants through the budget process known as reconciliation — which would only need the support of 50 Senate Democrats. But there are many hurdles ahead in that process, including whether the Senate parliamentarian would consider the immigration provisions to be germane to that special budget process.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, the first Latina senator, said in a statement to CNN that “there can be no question that we need to act now to protect our community,” adding that she would back doing so through “reconciliation or any other means possible.”
As Democratic lawmakers push for immigration reform, the administration is still contending with its plans to reverse Trump-era immigration policies while avoiding backups at the border. Some immigrant advocates, while critical of some aspects of the administration’s handling over the issue, continue to have confidence in the administration.
“The fact is that you can’t be completely unaware of and unconcerned of the political space for your policymaking but I think this administration overall, given what they inherited, is moving forward with a regional strategy that has a better chance of bringing orderly process to the border,” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, told CNN.
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CNN’s Paula Reid contributed to this report.