What can Biden do about the ‘big problem’ at the border?

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·Senior Editor
·7 min read
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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The first few months of 2021 have seen a marked increase in the number of migrants entering the United States by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. At the current rate, border crossings are on pace to hit their highest level in two decades, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

A particularly challenging aspect of this new surge is the record number of unaccompanied minors entering the country. Unlike adults, most of whom are deported immediately, children who arrive without an adult family member are placed into custody until they are put in the care of a sponsor — usually a relative — in the U.S. But the sheer volume of child migrants has strained the government’s ability to safely house them and process their cases.

Republicans have accused President Biden of creating a “crisis” at the border by abandoning the hard-line immigration policies of the Trump administration. It is true that Biden campaigned on a promise to reverse what many saw as inhumane practices imposed by his predecessor and has proposed sweeping legislative reforms. But so far most of former President Donald Trump’s border policies have remained in place. Right now the vast majority of migrants arriving at the border are adults who are being sent away under coronavirus restrictions put in place by Trump. Unlike Trump, however, Biden is allowing unaccompanied children to enter rather than releasing them into potentially dangerous circumstances in Mexico or their home countries.

The Biden administration has pushed back on the notion that there is a crisis at the southern border, but press secretary Jen Psaki did acknowledge that the challenge of sheltering and relocating the influx of child migrants represents a “big problem” that needs to be addressed.

Why there’s debate

Immigration experts say the current situation at the border requires both an immediate response and a long-term plan for reform.

The short-term goal, most argue, is getting the current surge in migrants under control. Some on the left say the administration’s top priority must be increasing its capacity to care for and process children entering the country so they don’t suffer in detention unnecessarily. Biden’s critics on the right say his promise to move away from Trump’s immigration policies has led to an influx of migrants who believe U.S. borders are essentially open, even though little has actually changed about the laws on the ground. Some Democrats have also suggested that Biden must send a stronger message to deter migrants from coming to the U.S., at least until the current spike in crossings has abated.

Others take issue with the idea that there’s a crisis at the border at all and accuse Republicans of exaggerating the severity of the situation for political gain. They argue that Biden shouldn’t allow this political pressure to derail his long-term goals for creating a more humane, functional immigration system. Unmanageable levels of illegal crossings will continue to happen, they say, unless the U.S. provides a more reasonable path toward legal immigration — something that will require more money, resources and legislative reforms. Many also call for Biden to address the instability and corruption in Central America that has pushed people to flee their homes in the first place.

What’s next

The Biden administration is taking measures to increase its ability to care for migrant children, including opening new facilities to house them while they wait to be placed with a sponsor.

The House of Representatives on Thursday passed two bills aimed at addressing the circumstances of migrants already in the country. The first would provide a path for so-called Dreamers who arrived in the country as children to receive permanent legal status in the U.S. The second would make it easier for migrant farmworkers to work in the U.S. legally.


Biden must send a firm message that America’s borders are not open

“Migrants respond to incentives, and the surge in border crossings is a direct response to Biden policies and rhetoric. ... The clear signal to migrants, and to the human smugglers who run people across the border, is that now is the time to come to America.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Biden shouldn’t cave to GOP fear mongering

“To be sure, politicians who reject the idea that the United States has the responsibility to protect people fleeing persecution will seek to stoke public fear and undermine the administration’s resolve to reverse the hateful policies of the past. As he marshals the resources to manage this issue competently and humanely, it will be critical for President Biden and all in his administration to respond to fear mongering with a strong public narrative of compassion.” — Eric Schwartz and Yael Schacher, Newsweek

Discouraging crossings in the short term will create space to build a more manageable system

“The U.S. has to make better preparations for how to handle those who do arrive at the border. Rumors — and the hopes of people seeking a better life — are hard to quell. But Biden will have more maneuvering room, both operationally and politically, if he succeeds in signaling to migrants that they should not travel to the border immediately — and that an easing of Trump’s policies is not the same as an unconditional welcome.” — Juliette Kayyem, Atlantic

No message from Biden can stop people from seeking refuge in the U.S.

“Messaging doesn’t work and no matter how hard they try, they won’t manage to stumble on one perfect message to stop people from coming. ‘Please don’t’ loses out to ‘If I stay, they’ll kill me.’” — Immigration policy expert Aaron Reichlin-Melnick

High numbers of migrant encounters do not mean there’s a crisis at the border

“‘Rising numbers of people getting arrested crossing into the US’ has been conflated with ‘losing control of border security.’ It’s dumb, especially now — ‘highest in 20 years’ just means ‘tons getting turned back.’” — ProPublica reporter Dara Lind

The factors causing the surge in migrants are beyond Biden’s control

“It’s really important to remember that people migrate for many reasons, and who is president of the United States is often not a huge part of the equation. ... We have seen a number of major events recently impacting the region of the world where many of these migrants are coming from — two devastating hurricanes and endemic poverty issues that were exacerbated by a pandemic being chief among them.” — Catherine Shoichet, CNN

Biden should be commended for trying to clean up our broken immigration system

“President Biden faces a challenge that demands striking a balance between border enforcement and humanitarian concern, between slamming the door and living up to America’s reputation as a beacon for the oppressed. So far, Biden is at least trying to strike a balance and his administration should be commended. But there are no simple solutions.” — Editorial, Houston Chronicle

Biden should reestablish the Trump policies that were working

“Trump overemphasized the importance of the border wall, and had a number of false starts at the border, most notoriously the ‘zero tolerance’ policy that led to family separations. By the end, though, he had created an entirely reasonable system based on his lawful authorities to impose order at the border, while still allowing asylum seekers to apply for asylum in the U.S. There is no good reason to rip up much of this arrangement, though that’s exactly what Biden has done.” — Rich Lowry, Politico

There are no short-term solutions to America’s immigration challenges

“The only real solution is a long-term one. It involves sending aid to Central America that improves conditions in the region; beefing up immigration courts with a major infusion of new judges to expand their capacity so that asylum claims are processed quickly and the years-long case backlog is shrunk.” — Editorial, Washington Post

The U.S. needs to invest in creating stability in Central America

“The fact is that upheaval, violence, poverty and other hardships in Central America and Mexico drive northward migration regardless of U.S. policy changes. ... Biden has rightly sought to target what drives migration through increased investment in the countries that are home to the migrants.” — Editorial, San Francisco Chronicle

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images, Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images, Adrees Latif/Reuters