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.