The images from our southern border are disturbing. Watching hundreds of children and other would-be asylum seekers crowded into facilities meant to hold far fewer and only briefly is unsettling. It’s hard to shake the video clip of two men dropping a three-year-old and five-year-old over the barrier between Mexico and the United States, then running away from their callous act. Hearing dramatic anecdotes that reporters have been blocked from observing is unnerving. It was a public relations disaster for a Biden administration that has generally handed well the early weeks of his Presidency and made Republicans planning attack ads against him for 2022 and 2024 giddy with excitement.
When Biden took over 76 days ago, a majority of Americans said they supported immigration reform. Fifty-seven percent agreed it was time to provide a pathway to citizenship for those who’d been living in the shadows. Now public support has dropped 14 points, and Biden is not seen hard-driving his comprehensive immigration reform bill. Post-election research indicates that many minorities of color, particularly Latinx voters, want stricter immigration controls than do progressive white Democrats. The old Democratic party position was to be firm with border security (remember the attacks on Obama as “deporter-in-chief”), but be flexible and welcoming to law-abiding undocumented residents. Now it’s not clear what their consensus position is, and that’s not good when battling to hold onto the House.
In its early efforts to rescind the cruelest of Trump’s immigration policies, Biden’s administration, which should have known better, mishandled both the optics and substance and consequently was caught flatfooted by those who prefer to demagogue not resolve the issue. Many in the news media who’d earlier been suckered into obsessing about Trump’s mythological caravan storming our gates have –with lazy reporting– only made matters worse. Facts matter.
Yes, the border influx is at its highest level in 15 years, and, yes, Biden can be faulted for not squelching rumors that there would be a massive change in our post-Trump asylum policy. But that doesn’t mean he has flung open our borders. Title 42, used by Trump to allow the government to reject asylum seekers at the border is still the law, save for the change to allow entry of unaccompanied minors on humanitarian grounds.
Our whole immigration system is outdated and broken. But part of the immediate problem is misunderstanding just what our asylum policy is or should be. Asylum provides a separate entry path from normal immigration procedures. It was designed to admit political escapees fearing for their lives and others suffering from special cases of acute discrimination.
Most at the southern border are traditional migrants, seeking to connect with relatives or find jobs. They are similar to those fleeing poverty and violence elsewhere in the world. Many of their stories are heartbreaking and harrowing, but in fairness they should not be allowed to jump the queue ahead of those from other parts of the world who are comparably situated, with similar painful stories, and are patiently waiting their turn.
Dealing with this problem will require short- and long-term solutions. The border facilities were originally created for adult men coming to work, often seasonally. By definition, they were not asylum seekers. In the past, only one percent of those admitted at the southern border were asylum seekers. If Biden wants to expand the definition to include families and unaccompanied children, then the debate must be engaged, and steps taken to provide more humane facilities and more personnel to adjudicate and administer the process.
In his draconian effort to curtail immigration, Trump hollowed out the system, leaving inadequate personnel for the task. Covid restrictions made matters worse. For all the crocodile tears from Republicans bemoaning current conditions in holding areas, I’m unaware of any support to organize and fund the needed upgrades or provide alternative solutions. Even if everyone now at the gates were deported, it wouldn’t seriously halt the return attempts, with significant numbers claiming that they definitely would or perhaps might try again, despite the dangers. Ironically, it’s remittances from migrants here to families back home that provide a lifeline for those struggling to stay in place.
Associated Press has directed its reporters not to use the word “crisis” in describing the situation. But, whether you call it a crisis or challenge, ultimately stabilizing the situation at the southern border will require dealing with the root causes of migration in the migrants’ home countries. We’ll look at that in tomorrow’s blog.