23 April 2021

Undoing Trump’s policies won’t solve Biden’s border headache

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If the polls are to be believed, Joe Biden is enjoying something of a honeymoon period. By the standards of modern America’s hyperpartisan politics, his approval rating is reasonably robust, his big-spending economic agenda is fairly popular and his Covid response has won widespread support. But there is an exception to this rosy picture, and it’s a big one: immigration. 

According to the most recent Quinnipiac survey, 64% of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the pandemic and 50% approve of his economic agenda. But when it comes to Biden’s handling of the situation at the US-Mexico border, the approval figure languishes at 29%.

During the Trump years, Democrats reduced immigration policy to a black-and-white morality play. Now in power, they are struggling to acknowledge the fraught trade-offs the issue involves. And nowhere are those trade offs clearer than at the border. 

US officials apprehended 172,331 migrants in March. Nearly 20,000 of them were unaccompanied children or teens. If these sound like big numbers, that’s because they are. Last month was the busiest month at America’s southern border in 15 years and the busiest on record when it comes to unaccompanied minors. 

The Biden administration’s initial response to this surge has been denial. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has been playing word games with reporters over whether it’s right to classify events at the border as a “crisis”. Biden has responded to questions about the numbers crossing the border by claiming that “nothing has changed”. In defiance of the numbers, he has claimed that surges like this happen “every single, solitary year”.

The link between this influx and the Biden administration’s actions seem clear enough. For example, last year Trump used the pandemic to turn more migrants away at the border. Biden created an exemption for children and, sure enough, many more children are making the trip. The new administration has also scrapped the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols. The so-called Remain in Mexico system addressed the fact that most migrants claiming asylum were released into the US pending a court appearance. Even when those claims were unsuccessful, most would stay in the country anyway. In other words, the incentives to attempt a crossing have grown a lot stronger now Biden is in power. 

The result has been overloaded shelters: thousands of unaccompanied minors detained in migration facilities and federal agencies scrambling for more space. Republicans have jumped on these scenes and levelled the same “kids in cages” charge that Democrats aimed at Trump. It is easy to dismiss this trollish approach to such a sensitive issue, but it is a reminder that good intentions cannot save policymakers from difficult decisions at the border. 

Its cruel excesses notwithstanding, Trump’s border policy had a clear goal: drive down the number of arrivals and force as many asylum applications to happen south of the border. 

In Biden’s defence, his goals are more complicated than Trump’s border-security-at-any-cost approach. But what is the plan? Simply unwinding Trump’s policies will mean a reversion to an unsatisfactory status quo ante – in which more and more migrants entered, lived and work in the country illegally – and only make a reasonable cross-party deal on immigration less likely. 

Talk of any kind of grand compromise on immigration may seem quixotic these days, but what alternative is there when it comes to this issue? For advocates of a more generous immigration system, the crisis at America’s southern edge only makes the argument less compelling. And as long as the federal government appears to have so little control over events at the border, then the chances of a lasting solution on America’s range of immigration headaches – from undocumented long-term US residents and the Dreamers to the questions of the best levels of skilled and unskilled migration – will continue to fade. 

For now, the administration appears rattled by the speed with which the border has become such a problem. Biden’s border tsar Roberta Jacobson will leave the White House at the end of the month. Last week, the administration was ready to issue an executive order to keep in place a Trump-era refugee cap of 15,000 for the year, but backtracked after uproar among progressive Democrats. 

America’s immigration problem is a Gordian knot. The politics are fraught and the policies involve difficult trade offs. To make any progress, Biden must set out a vision for US immigration and the southern border that is defined by more than a determination to undo the work of his predecessor.  

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Oliver Wiseman is US Editor of The Critic.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.