W. James Antle
President Joe Biden is facing a crisis at the border, even if the White House would prefer not to use that word. Ambassador Roberta Jacobson, the administration’s coordinator for the southern border, certainly tried her best to avoid the term on Wednesday when she said, “We have to do what we do regardless of what anybody calls the situation.”
She was referring to a massive surge of migrants along the U.S. border with Mexico that federal authorities are struggling to keep up with. And that crisis — or situation — is at least partly of the Biden administration’s making.
The president campaigned on easing immigration controls, including a moratorium on deportations, an end to former President Donald Trump’s “wait in Mexico” policy for asylum-seekers and halting construction of the border wall. That platform gave migrants good reason to believe it would be easier to get into the United States if he were elected.
Since taking office, Biden has also given them good reason to think they might be allowed to stay, as his immigration bill would offer legal status and a pathway to citizenship to much of the U.S. undocumented population.
Biden needs to admit that his eagerness to roll back Trump’s immigration policies without a meaningful plan to deal with the predictable migration increase has led to chaos at the border. While many voters wanted a kinder, gentler approach than Trump’s, Democrats cannot simply wish away the need for effective border security and immigration regulation short of declaring open borders — a deeply unpopular idea carrying numerous economic and security risks.
Playing to the wishes of the Democratic base while ignoring the need for more enforcement has merely exacerbated the problem at the border and is becoming impossible to deny, much as the Biden administration would like to. It’s not only a problem in terms of the United States being ill-equipped and under-resourced to handle the surge. It also leads migrants to take risks on dangerous terrain and increases the likelihood that unaccompanied minors will end up in perilous conditions.
The numbers are stark. More than 100,000 migrants attempted to enter the U.S. in February, more than three times the amount for February 2020 and the highest level for the month in five years. “Internal DHS/HHS reports show the crisis at the border is significantly worse than Biden admin has acknowledged,” Washington Post reporter Nick Miroff tweeted Wednesday. “There are now 3,500 unaccompanied minors in grim Border Patrol detention cells, a record.” And more than 1,000 minors have exceeded the amount of time they can be detained before being transferred to a shelter, according to the New York Times.
The White House has hesitated to get into the specifics in public. Questioned about the accuracy of the 3,500 figure at a daily press briefing, Biden press secretary Jen Psaki replied, “I’m not going to confirm numbers from here.” But tacitly the administration has conceded there’s a relationship between the migration surge and Biden’s change in both tone and policy. “Surges tend to respond to hope,” Jacobson acknowledged, “and there was a significant hope for a more humane policy after four years of, you know, pent-up demand.”
Unfortunately, the swiftness of Biden’s changes has been combined with inadequate preparations for a swell in numbers that should have been anticipated and essentially no attention to border security measures that would help deter and contain them.
All this is unfolding against the backdrop of the larger immigration debate in the U.S. The last major stab at compromise between those who want to let in more foreigners and allow illegal immigrants to stay and those who want to limit entries and remove those who’ve entered without permission came in 1986. President Ronald Reagan, a conservative icon, signed into law an amnesty for millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country in exchange for some increased enforcement on the theory that it would settle the matter.
Many conservatives believed that the increased enforcement never came, and it’s indisputable that the undocumented population continued to grow throughout the 1990s, hardening conservative views. When GOP President George W. Bush sought to reassure his party that there would be tougher border security as part of a bipartisan bill that would also give many migrants leniency, House Republicans close to the conservative grassroots rejected it.
But the policy combination of easier legal immigration, legal status for the undocumented under certain conditions and improvements to border security — popularly known as “comprehensive immigration reform” — had staying power. When Democratic President Barack Obama succeeded Bush, he too supported similar proposals and tried to do more on the enforcement front to reassure wary Republicans.
But Obama’s enforcement efforts did not entice additional Republicans to come around on immigration legislation, such as a revamped version of Bush’s legislation. Instead, it inflamed progressive activists who found the enforcement against disproportionately nonwhite migrants racist, terming Obama the “deporter in chief.”
Obama then angered the right when he used his executive authority to grant deportation protection to some young undocumented immigrants through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, despite previously expressing doubts that he had the power to do so.
When Trump was elected, he broke from the Bush-Obama immigration consensus entirely — trying to end DACA, step up deportation and impose stricter limits on refugees, asylum-seekers and legal immigrants. In other words, Democrats moved left and Republicans moved right. That is the divide into which Biden now steps.
The president campaigned on dissociating the country from a Trump immigration policy associated with border walls, “kids in cages” and ugly rhetoric. But migration still has to be managed, as his administration is rapidly being reminded, otherwise it exposes the migrants to a high level of personal risk. And unaccompanied children are still ending up in detention centers, whether we call them “cages” or not.
The Biden administration hopes that it can, through aid to the migrants’ countries of origin, address the “root causes” of mass migration while also retaining America’s welcoming image. But we have learned in recent years that Washington’s capacity to shape outcomes in foreign countries and manage migrant inflows have serious limitations and come with real costs. In cleaning up a migration mess of its own creation, the Biden White House can’t ignore these lessons just because Trump didn’t.