President Biden has tried to contain a surge of migration by embracing, or at least tolerating, some of his predecessor’s approaches.
Immigration was dead simple when Joseph R. Biden Jr. was campaigning for president: It was an easy way to attack Donald J. Trump as a racist, and it helped to rally Democrats with the promise of a more humane border policy.
Nothing worked better than Mr. Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” that he was building along the southern border. Its existence was as much a metaphor for the polarization inside America as it was a largely ineffective barrier against foreigners fleeing to the United States from Central America.
“There will not be,” Mr. Biden proclaimed as he campaigned against Mr. Trump in the summer of 2020, “another foot of wall constructed.”
But a massive surge of migration in the Western Hemisphere has scrambled the dynamics of an issue that has vexed presidents for decades, and radically reshaped the political pressures on Mr. Biden and his administration. Instead of becoming the president who quickly reversed his predecessor’s policies, Mr. Biden has repeatedly tried to curtail the migration of a record number of people — and the political fallout that has created — by embracing, or at least tolerating, some of Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant approaches.
Even, it turns out, the wall.
On Thursday, Biden administration officials formally sought to waive environmental regulations to allow construction of up to 20 additional miles of border wall in a part of Texas that is inundated by illegal migration. The move was a stunning reversal on a political and moral issue that had once galvanized Mr. Biden and Democrats like no other.
The funds for the wall had been approved by Congress during Mr. Trump’s tenure, and on Friday, the president said he had no power to block their use.
“The wall thing?” Mr. Biden asked reporters on Friday. “Yeah. Well, I was told that I had no choice — that I, you know, Congress passes legislation to build something, whether it’s an aircraft carrier wall or provide for a tax cut. I can’t say, ‘I don’t like it. I’m not going to do it.’”
White House officials said that they tried for years, without success, to get Congress to redirect the wall money to other border priorities. And they said Mr. Biden’s lawyers had advised that the only way to get around the Impoundment Control Act, which requires the president to spend money as Congress directs, was to file a lawsuit. The administration chose not to do so.
The money had to be spent by the end of December, the officials said.
Asked on Thursday whether he thought a border wall works, Mr. Biden — who has long said a wall would not be effective — said simply: “No.”
Still, human rights groups are furious, accusing the president of abandoning the principles on which he campaigned. They praise him for opening new, legal opportunities for some migrants, including thousands from Venezuela, but question his recent reversals on enforcement policy.
“It doesn’t help this administration politically, to continue policies that they were very clear they were against,” said Vanessa Cárdenas, the executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant rights organization. “That muddles the message and undermines the contrast that they’re trying to make when it comes to Republicans.”
“This president came into office with a lot of moral clarity about where the lines were,” she added, noting that he and his aides “need to sort of decide who