Biden Has a Border Problem

A surge of migrants poses a challenge for the president’s policies.

A girl walking through El Chaparral crossing port
GUILLERMO ARIAS / AFP / Getty

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

The Biden administration has gotten off to a fast start. President Joe Biden has signed a gigantic coronavirus-relief bill into law. Cabinet nominations are being approved by the Senate rapidly, many by lopsided margins. The United States has already returned to the Paris Agreement; green-energy ideas are being drafted into law.

But there is a hole in the hull, and the boat is taking on water. Biden’s people should see the danger. If not, they have certainly had ample warning. In the latest CBS/YouGov poll, 62 percent of respondents approve of the way Biden is handling his job as president, 60 percent of his handling of the economy, and 67 percent of handling of the coronavirus. Only 52 percent, though, approve of the way he is handling immigration—yet the Biden administration seems too paralyzed to act.

When White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked on March 9 whether the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border qualified as a “crisis,” she replied, “I don’t think we need to sit here and put new labels on what we have already conveyed is challenging.”

Whatever words the administration chooses to use, though, there is no argument about the fast-rising numbers. In December, 71,000 people were apprehended as they crossed the southern border. That number rose to 75,000 in January, and nearly 100,000 in February, the highest level in 14 years. March’s number will surely climb higher still: In the first week of the month, apprehensions reached almost 5,000 a day.

The Biden administration did not intentionally invite these border crossers. Biden’s new homeland-security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, on March 1 offered potential migrants this complicated guidance: “We are not saying, ‘Don’t come.’ We are saying, ‘Don’t come now, because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process to them as quickly as possible.”

But they are coming. They are coming in numbers unlike anything seen in years. Those numbers are rising. And because the Biden administration wants no return to the detention policies of the Donald Trump years, it is releasing thousands of asylum applicants into the interior of the United States. Those releases, in turn, encourage still more people to try their luck at forcing their way into the United States.

Migration ebbs and flows, in part, according to perceived opportunity. Traveling from South and Central America to the U.S. border is expensive and risky. The criminal gangs that control access and help smuggle people across charge up to $8,000 a person. Impoverished people do not risk that kind of investment lightly. When they expect to be refused, many stay home. When they believe that the door is open, increased numbers race to grasp the moment. In the Trump administration’s final years, border crossings dropped sharply. With Trump gone, border crossings have spiked.

Border crossers are vulnerable to rumor and misinformation. The criminal cartels that traffic in people are only too glad to offer deceptive hope. The best way for an American administration to deter migration—and save lives—is to communicate a clear and consistent message: Do not waste your money; do not risk your life; do not try to enter the United States without authorization.

But the Biden administration, so determined to break with Trump’s record on immigration, has found it hard to speak clearly—or clearly enough to counter the lies of the traffickers. Days ago, a New York Times reporter observed a woman who had been refused entry wail into a telephone: “Biden promised us!” Biden had not promised any such thing, of course. But his administration has also not used the simple, certain language necessary to refute the cartels’ advertising.

And some Biden moves have actually lent credibility to the traffickers’ false promises. First, Biden put forward an immigration bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were present in the United States as of January 1, 2021. This sent the message to prospective migrants contemplating illegal entry that a very generous amnesty was at hand, even for recent arrivals, even for those with no asylum claim at all.

Then, on his first full day as president, Biden suspended Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers. Under the new policy, asylum seekers will be allowed to live and work in the United States while their case is heard—a process that can take years. During the Obama administration, fewer than a third of the asylum applications adjudicated each year were granted. More than 1.1 million people inside the United States are awaiting a ruling on their asylum claims. Those who perceive themselves as likely to lose may stop showing up in court, making them more difficult to deport if their claims are denied.

Biden’s early immigration changes seem to have been driven more by domestic political considerations than anything else. Because border crossing declined under Trump, Biden had the option of simply doing nothing and enjoying a rare positive legacy. But the Democratic base has veered sharply leftward on immigration issues since 2014, as my colleague Peter Beinart has argued. As part of his effort to appeal to that base, Biden acted faster and bigger than the situation he inherited required him to, and that has created serious and unnecessary political trouble for him.

Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona, who in 2020 flipped the seat formerly held by Martha McSally, a Republican, will face voters again in 2022. Immigration could become a powerful wedge issue against him, threatening Democratic control of the Senate. In Texas, which elects a governor in 2022, Latino voters are edging out of the Democratic Party and toward the Republicans. Residents of border areas most directly experience the disruptions of unauthorized immigration. And many Texas Latinos embrace enforcement-minded views on immigration, even if they also empathize with the reasons migrants leave home.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the overwhelmingly Latino Rio Grande Valley by massive margins. In 2020, Trump cut that Democratic margin dramatically, and won Zapata County, on the border, south of Nuevo Laredo, outright. The Border Patrol is a major employer in the area; Latinos make up about half of its agents nationally, and even more in the Rio Grande Valley. On every other issue, Biden has understood that Twitter is a deceptive indicator of public opinion. On immigration alone, he is letting activists push him into unelectability.

The Biden administration has not abandoned enforcement altogether. It removed almost 1,000 Haitian nationals in February. But on a question such as immigration, where many of the most relevant constituencies do not speak English and may lack reliable access to quality information, it is particularly urgent that the administration speak clearly and unambiguously. One study found that one-fourth of the people who reached the southern border from 2009 to 2015 suffered physical violence along the way. Inducing more people to try their luck against these odds is inhumane, yet that is the outcome toward which Biden is drifting.

Trump often stumbled into disaster by reversing policies for the sole reason that they had Barack Obama’s name on them. Biden should not repeat that mistake. Trump’s record provides no shining example, and he made more than his share of mistakes on immigration. But on the matter of asylum, at least, the former president addressed a problem that needed addressing. By ending the “Remain in Mexico” policy, Biden summoned unnecessary trouble for himself. That was a mistake, but it’s a mistake he can still fix.

On Wednesday, the White House coordinator for the southern border, Ambassador Roberta Jacobson, got it right. From the White House press rostrum, she said, in Spanish, “The border is not open.” That’s the message that will save lives south of the border—and protect Biden’s policy agenda to its north.

In the past decade, liberal-minded politics across the Western world was undone by lax border controls. The COVID-19 travel slowdowns brought a temporary and partial respite. That pause could be a considerable resource for Biden if he does not waste it. But he’s wasting it now, at a price that may prove crushing for his hopes of achieving more progressive politics in the 2020s than Democrats managed in the 2010s.