A potential crisis and a grave political embarrassment for the new administration have collided on the U.S. southern border. Migrant crossings, especially of unaccompanied children, have surged, and the systems meant to cope with such arrivals are under pressure. President Joe Biden needs to move quickly before the problem gets any worse.
February saw almost 100,000 people apprehended at the border, a nearly 30% increase over January and the highest number for that month in five years. U.S. border shelters are already overwhelmed.
Much of the blame rests with Biden’s predecessor. The previous administration denied border authorities the resources they need to do their job quickly and humanely, and relied on cruelty, harsh rhetoric and a largely irrelevant wall to help deter migrants. That approach had to go — but Biden erred in conspicuously reversing those tactics without also preparing for the consequences.
A lengthy statement by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas described what’s happening and what the government is doing in response — but it accepted no responsibility for the mess. All the mistakes, it explains, were made by President Donald Trump.
Biden’s introduction of a comprehensive immigration reform was premature. It served as an invitation to migrants; a surge was foreseeable and the system wasn’t ready. In addition, by executive order, Biden has partially rolled back Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy for asylum applicants, and the administration has shut down several other programs that enabled fast denial of migrants’ often questionable claims for protection.
Mexican officials fear that this relaxed asylum policy is empowering drug- and immigrant-smuggling cartels. Smugglers are well-versed in immigration law. They’re bound to have distorted the opportunity that these changes presented to their clients.
Biden needs to reconsider. Mayorkas’ statement cited efforts to create a more humane version of the “Remain in Mexico” policy. Good idea — but this highlights the urgency of deepening U.S. diplomatic engagement with Mexico’s government (the new administration still hasn’t appointed an ambassador). Mexico will need help to rapidly expand its capacity to house asylum-seekers until their cases can be heard. The U.S. should also develop in-country processing centers in Central America to obviate the need for dangerous trips to the border and deprive cartels of a growing source of revenue.
The administration is right to propose new funds to mitigate the humanitarian crises in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — while insisting, also rightly, that additional aid is tied to action on corruption and abuse of power. Without a more stable, secure and prosperous Central America, migration will continue to test U.S. governments. Threatening withdrawal of support as punishment for flows of migrants, as Trump preferred, only aggravate the underlying problem.
Most urgently, at the border, Biden should do all he can to speed the processing of asylum-seekers so that successful applicants can be promptly admitted and unsuccessful applicants promptly denied. This is partly a question of resources — a lot more will need to be spent on personnel and facilities — but giving asylum officers broader authority to rule on cases would also help.
After Trump, new pressure on the southern border was almost inevitable, but it needn’t have been as bad as this. Biden’s precipitate initiatives have made things worse. He needs to start undoing the damage.