In its first weeks in office, the Biden administration showed it prepared well to tackle the yearlong COVID-19 pandemic. But the opposite seems true in its handling of the continuing problems on the country’s southern border.
Officials have seemed surprised and overwhelmed that their promise of a more humane approach to the illegal immigration problem produced a surge of youthful asylum seekers they were clearly unprepared to handle.
And top officials have complicated their efforts with a series of mixed messages about their policies.
This has given a political lifeline for Republicans to change the subject from President Joe Biden’s far-ranging and popular COVID rescue plan and resume their frequent posture of both criticizing the existing immigration situation and blocking any solution.
It has also put pressure on the president and his team to come up with what they promised, an effective system that both protects the border and treats asylum seekers with the compassion Americans traditionally afford those seeking a better life.
Republicans contend Biden bears primary responsibility for what’s happening because of his vow to reverse Donald Trump’s hard-line policies. There is some truth in that, as even some officials acknowledged.
“Surges tend to respond to hope,” Ambassador Roberta Jacobson, the administration’s Coordinator for the Southern Border, told a White House briefing. “I certainly think that the idea that a more humane policy would be in place may have driven people” to come.
But she and other officials rejected Republican accusations the new administration is pursuing an “open border” policy, noting many more asylum seekers are being sent home than admitted.
Still, Jacobson and the new secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, have sent out conflicting signals.
Testifying to Congress, Mayorkas said the administration’s message to would-be asylum seekers is, “Don’t come now.” But Jacobson told Reuters, “The message isn’t ‘Don’t come now’; it’s ‘Don’t come in this way, ever.’”
Another complication was the reversal of Mexico’s agreement to house asylum seekers south of the U.S. border. Then weeks later it agreed to resume sheltering them in return for expanded supplies of anti-COVID vaccine. And this week, the White House dispatched envoys to Central America to help resolve the issue.
In any case, the problem goes far beyond the new administration’s more welcoming attitude and the fact that it is detaining more children and teens than the legal limit.
Indeed, the underlying problem is that administrations of neither party have been able to establish a more effective immigration system, exacerbated by the continuing congressional failure to deal with the problem. Too many lawmakers have been more interested in playing politics.
At least twice in the last 15 years – in 2007 during the second Bush administration and in 2013 under the Obama administration — the pieces were in place for a bipartisan legislative package to replace the current set of ad hoc policies, but the bills failed.
In 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan plan, only to see it founder in the House.
More recently, during the Trump administration, a narrower compromise collapsed when the former president reversed himself and rejected a bipartisan package combining funding for his cherished anti-immigration wall with a legal path for the thousands of dreamers brought to this country as children.
Upon taking office, Biden called for a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers in the United States and stepped up efforts to help Central American countries reduce the violence prompting many to flee.
But it is unlikely to pass either house anytime soon. Last week, the House narrowly passed one bill to provide a pathway to citizenship for the “Dreamers” and others granted asylum for their protection, and a second one for thousands of agricultural workers. The first bill attracted nine Republicans, the second 30. But key Democrats concede even those more modest measures face a Senate stalemate.
Despite its initial difficulties, the Biden administration likely still has some time to show it can be both more humane than the Trump administration and more effective. But its initial experience shows that neither part will be easy.
Email Carl P. Leubsdorf at email@example.com.
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