The surge in migrants trying to enter the United States these days was as predictable as the surge in the hysterical nonsense with which politicians in Washington, DC and elsewhere describe the nation’s “border crisis.”
Republican Senators from Mitt Romney to John Cornyn, Mitch McConnell, and Tom Cotton have relished the opportunity to retake what they perceive to be the moral high ground on immigration. Far better to be able to decry the “Biden border crisis” that results from the president supposedly being soft and “pro-amnesty” on illegal immigration than to have to stand by your own president’s distasteful and inhumane measures to seal the border. So, distressingly enough, Republicans now seem even more united in Trump’s absence in their anti-immigrant fervor.
The political debate on the issue is mostly nonsensical, decoupled from reality. Yes, there are extremist elements within the Democratic Party who flirt with abandoning all immigration law enforcement (and such sentiments were expressed from time to time during the Democratic primaries last year). But let’s be clear: Joe Biden has never been in that camp; neither as a candidate nor as president. Indeed, the Obama-Biden record on immigration, and Biden’s reluctance to fully disown it, was one of the main reasons progressives found his candidacy so distasteful.
As candidate and president, Biden has been consistent in saying he would reverse Trump administration policies that violate human rights and international law, which is very different from saying he would stop enforcing immigration laws or securing the border with Mexico. Only in the crazy maelstrom of Washington politics would the administration’s decisions to stop jeopardizing the lives of children (no longer forcing unaccompanied Central American minors on Mexico) and to abide by international law when it comes to asylum seekers be equated with a reckless “open border” policy. Biden and his aides have been very clear on their message to migrants: don’t come, and the vast majority of undocumented immigrants continue to be deported under expedited Covid-19 procedures.
That some migrants keep coming regardless, and that some cite Biden’s change in tone, is not surprising, but it is comically self-involved for DC pundits to assume that the nuances of shifting messaging is the deciding factor for why desperate families fleeing violence, famine, and economic destitution from Central America’s Northern Triangle and elsewhere decide to make the dangerous trek in search of a better life in the United States. The initial surges in Central American migration took place, after all, during the Trump years, despite all its hostile rhetoric. And as the Council on Foreign Relations’ Shannon O’Neill wrote in a prophetic piece last summer, a surge of migrants at the border would likely be the first crisis of 2021, regardless of who won the election in November. Surges in Central American migration have proven cyclical, but O’Neill also noted that starting in 2020, Mexicans were once again starting to account for the majority of undocumented crossings, a trend likely to accelerate in 2021 as a result to the Mexican government’s disastrous economic stewardship.
To the extent that President Trump was able to claim that it had stemmed the flow of migrants and sealed the border, it was mostly by outsourcing the handling of Central American migration to Mexico’s compliant president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who stepped up enforcement along his southern border and agreed for his country to be used as a waiting room for US asylum seekers. That arrangement, chaotic and transitory in nature, won’t help matters when the issue is a surge in Mexican migrants.
The term “crisis” also bears some perspective. Some Republican politicians (understandably eager to shift attention from their handling of the pandemic) and their favored media outlets would have you believe the 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico is being overrun by criminals and that the government no longer has the power or will to enforce our sovereignty. This is ridiculous. Federal border agents made nearly 100,000 arrests in February, the highest one-month total since 2006, but still less than half the monthly totals we’d see during the peak immigration years of the late 1990s and turn of century, before Washington lost all perspective on the matter. There are legitimate concerns about the government’s ability to detain 15,000 unaccompanied minors in humane conditions (instead of dumping them across the border) and legitimate public health concerns about migration surges potentially spreading Covid-19, but by and large border cities across the Southwest boast low crime rates and strong economies. Utter chaos it isn’t.
The real crisis remains in Washington, where politicians refuse to act on what they know, or should know, to be true, rather than reach for partisan hyperbole. Donald Trump isn’t responsible for the surge of migrants coming to the US, any more than Joe Biden is. But his presidency was another four years during which we failed to address the root causes for these migration spikes and the cancerous affront to the rule of law posed by the US economy’s reliance on millions of undocumented workers.
Washington should focus more attention on strengthening ties with Mexico across a range of issues (I have suggested that President Biden deputize his vice president for this delicate mission) that could include a more coherent, sustainable regional approach to handling Central American refugees, and the core issues afflicting their home countries. Equally pressing, the United States needs to engage with AMLO in an effort to reverse his disastrous macroeconomic policies that will exacerbate the migration pressure.
But sadly, what may be most elusive is for Republicans and Democrats to come together to resolve the nation’s incoherent approach to immigration. The sad fact is that the issue remains too sexy of a culture war/partisan cudgel to be treated as the policy challenge it is, whose commonsensical corrective remedies have been clear for decades (and were close to being implemented in the comprehensive bipartisan reform passed by the Senate and championed by Republicans like George W. Bush and John McCain back in 2006, which then failed to pass the House).
What must be done remains clear. The US needs to legalize the status of millions of hardworking immigrants already here without documentation; strengthen workplace enforcement of immigration laws; set a more realistic (augmented) flow of authorized migration that our economy needs and depends on so we don’t end up in this situation again in a few years; and acknowledge that there are abuses of the asylum process that need addressing.
The House of Representatives passed two modest bills last week that address some of the issues (such as the status of Dreamers and some farm workers), but there is little hope that the Biden administration’s broader efforts for a comprehensive reform will succeed. What tragically might succeed instead is cheap demagoguery aimed at anyone seeking to fix the problem.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America .Twitter: @AndresDCmtz