Stand up for the facts!

Misinformation isn't going away just because it's a new year. Support trusted, factual information with a tax deductible contribution to PolitiFact.

More Info

I would like to contribute

President Joe Biden talks during a televised town hall event at Pabst Theater, Feb. 16, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP) President Joe Biden talks during a televised town hall event at Pabst Theater, Feb. 16, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP)

President Joe Biden talks during a televised town hall event at Pabst Theater, Feb. 16, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP)

Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde February 17, 2021

Fact-checking Joe Biden’s claim about people having to seek asylum ‘from abroad’

If Your Time is short

  • Biden misstated key facts and missed important context about asylum policies. People can apply for asylum only once they are in the United States. 

  • During the Trump administration, some people who entered at the southern border and sought asylum in the United States were sent to Mexico to wait for a decision on their case. Biden’s administration has said it will no longer send asylum seekers to Mexico.

  • Asylum law also extends to people who already live in the United States and are not in deportation proceedings. Even when the “Remain in Mexico” program was in effect, people already living in the United States were not necessarily sent out of the country to wait for a resolution of their case.

During his first town hall since being sworn into office, President Joe Biden reaffirmed his promise to offer a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants living illegally in the country, and denounced practices that he said required people to "seek asylum from abroad."

"For the first time in American history, if you're seeking asylum, meaning you're being persecuted, you're seeking asylum, you can't do it from the United States," Biden said in Milwaukee Feb. 16. "You used to come, have an asylum officer determine whether or not you met the criteria ... but you can't even do that. You’ve got to seek asylum from abroad."

Is Biden right that people have to seek asylum from abroad?

He isn’t. In recycling a talking point from his campaign, Biden overstated the details of a program implemented by his predecessor, and failed to note that his administration has already revised it. His statement gives the wrong impression to people who aren’t very familiar with the asylum debate.

Changes in the asylum waiting process

The United States grants asylum to people who demonstrate that they have suffered persecution or fear persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

There are two ways of obtaining asylum in the United States: the defensive process or the affirmative process.

For instance, people who are apprehended by Border Patrol agents and slated for removal can apply for asylum as a defense against deportation. People who apply for the affirmative process are not in removal proceedings; they could be people who have been living in the country for months and arrived either legally or illegally.

Starting in 2019 during the Trump administration, people who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border without proper documents and applied for asylum in the United States were sent to Mexico to wait there for a resolution of their case, which could take months or years. The "Remain in Mexico" program led to thousands of migrants setting up makeshift camps in border towns in Mexico. Immigration experts have said it was unprecedented for people to be sent out of the United States after initiating an asylum claim here.

But the Trump program didn’t change a key principle of asylum law: People have to be physically present in the United States to request asylum. They can apply for asylum within one year of their arrival in the United States — whether they got here with or without authorization. Biden described the change incorrectly.

Moreover, Biden’s characterization of Trump’s policy wasn’t true for the people who already live in the United States and seek asylum through the affirmative process.

Featured Fact-check

Biden administration stopped Remain in Mexico program

Biden’s remarks ignore that his administration has stopped sending asylum seekers to Mexico.

The Department of Homeland Security has said that beginning Feb. 19, it plans to begin phase one of a program to allow into the United States people who were sent to Mexico under the Remain in Mexico program and who have active immigration court cases. About 25,000 people have such active cases, according to DHS.

In the town hall, Biden "was referring to the prior administration’s divisive use" of the Remain in Mexico program, said Vedant Patel, a White House spokesperson.

During his campaign for president, reporters asked Biden about the asylum seekers sent to Mexico by the Trump administration. Biden, speaking about this specific group, said it was "the first time ever you've had to seek asylum in a third country."

We rated that claim Mostly True, given the context of the question. Experts said the Mexico program was the first of its kind, but noted that people were sent to Mexico not to seek asylum, but to wait for a decision on their U.S. case.

Our ruling

Biden said, "For the first time in American history, if you're seeking asylum ... you can't do it from the United States. ... You’ve got to seek asylum from abroad."

Biden misstated the facts.

People can apply for asylum only once they are in the United States. During the Trump administration, some people who entered at the southern border and sought asylum in the United States were sent to Mexico to wait for a decision on their case. Biden’s administration has said it will no longer send asylum seekers to Mexico.

Asylum law also extends to people who already live in the United States and are not in deportation proceedings. Even when the Remain in Mexico program was in effect, people already in the United States who applied for asylum were not necessarily sent out of the country to wait for a resolution of their case.

Biden’s statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Miriam Valverde

Fact-checking Joe Biden’s claim about people having to seek asylum ‘from abroad’

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up