There is a crisis on the U.S. border with Mexico whether the Biden administration wants to call it that or not. The flow of undocumented migrants is overwhelming U.S. facilities and U.S. immigration officials.
Periodic surges in undocumented migration, of course, happen periodically but this most recent and acute crisis is in large part a result of the administration’s messaging, not its overt messaging, but its meta-message. It was also inevitable. While senior Biden administration officials have periodically insisted intending migrants should not to try to enter the United States without appropriate documentation, there has been virtually no suggestion that it is the administration’s intention to vigorously enforce U.S. immigration law. Indeed, on January 21, 2021 President Biden sent a massive immigration reform bill to congress. That bill according to the administration is intended to restore “humanity” to the U.S. immigration system and includes, in addition to much else, a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented workers now resident in the U.S. This draft legislation was, of course, expected.
During the presidential campaign and since, Democrats have insisted that they planned to reverse President Trump’s policies regarding both undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. They expressed particular outrage over the Trump administration’s insistence that those petitioning for asylum wait in Mexico until their cases could be adjudicated. They dismissed the Trump administration’s negotiated agreements with Mexico and governments of the northern triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), while disparaging President Trump’s approach in general as inherently racist and at odds with American values.
Since the inauguration of President Biden and the resumption of Democrat control of the Senate, democrats in both the executive and legislative branches have restated their determination to regularize the status of the so called DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) population of undocumented persons who were brought to the United States as children. They have extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to refugees from two additional countries (Myanmar and Venezuela)—a measure, as a former ambassador, I support—and lifted the deadline for TPS recipients from several other countries to depart the United States.
Poor people everywhere have been listening and watching, especially in the northern triangle countries of Central America and in Mexico.
President Biden and Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas have both publicly called on undocumented migrants to stay home, warning that they would be stopped at the border or deported. Clearly, from the numbers crossing the border or in route to the U.S.-Mexico frontier, their message has not so far been persuasive.
Their warnings have not dissuaded migrants from heading north because virtually everything Washington is doing to deal with the arriving migrants is sending a completely different message from the administration’s official statements. The Biden administration has suspended construction on the Trump’s border wall, a gesture that signifies at the very least an important symbolic change in U.S. policy. Even if, as some media reports suggest, the Biden team restarts construction, the damage is done and intending migrants—and their coyote handlers—understand that a return to work on the border wall is at best a half-hearted temporary measure.
More recently, the administration has begun constructing enormous tent facilities to house undocumented minors and has reportedly pulled immigration officials off the line to help manage the detained migrants. President Biden has also insisted that he will not permit U.S. immigration officers to turn away unaccompanied minors. The implication for desperate people in the developing world is clear: the United States will now admit your kids even if not you.
The way President Trump talked about undocumented migrants, especially those from Mexico, was both shocking and deeply offensive to both Mexico and to many Americans. His strategy for stemming the flow of undocumented migrants into the country seemed harsh and at odds with Americans’ traditional view of their own demographic image of the United States as a country of immigrants. His approach did not end illegal immigration, but it did slow it down significantly. Following the new administration’s dismantling of the Trump’s immigration controls, however, the situation on the border has deteriorated rapidly, causing problems for both Mexico and the United States.
The question now is what can the Biden administration do to bring the situation under control. Images of unaccompanied minors packed into grossly inadequate facilities have horrified Republicans and Democrats alike. Stories of new migrant caravans being organized in Central America have generated alarm in many parts of the country. The most recent reports of two individuals on the terrorist watch list being apprehended on the border invite legitimate concern that many more malign actors are successfully getting through.
The situation urgently requires that the administration change its metamessage. This means paying more than lip service to enforcement of U.S. immigration law as it exists today. The administration needs to reinforce border security, if necessary, sending substantial numbers of officers to patrol the frontier. It should resume construction of the border wall—as odious a step as that will be for those who promised a more humane approach to immigration. They should also accelerate legitimate deportations and consider returning some unaccompanied minors to their countries of origin—as distasteful as that step may be to the administration. Biden’s immigration reform bill is not the law yet and it is not likely to survive in anything close to its current ambitious form if the administration shows itself incapable of managing the current surge.
Patrick Duddy served as the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela from 2007 to 2010. Now retired from the U.S. Department of State, he is the director of Duke University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.