Joe Biden Is in Denial About the Crisis at the Border

The White House won’t call it a crisis, but the time is long gone for saying there’s nothing here to see. Thousands of people come across the border daily, and that number is expected to jump to 18,000 a day when Title 42 is lifted. The Trump-era regulation kept the numbers down by allowing border agents to immediately turn back illegal migrants to Mexico (or their home country) to protect public health during the pandemic.

Unless the Supreme Court sides with Republican officials from 19 states who say lifting Title 42 will create an unsustainable spike in border crossings, the Biden administration is facing a moment of truth.

After two years of pretending the crush of humanity is no different from what previous presidents experienced, the administration is rushing more resources to the border, a belated recognition that the situation there is out of control.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat from Texas, isn’t a favorite in his party, but he just won re-election after a strong primary challenge from his left, and he makes the compelling case—that I agree with—that President Joe Biden should visit the border. Cuellar says a lot of leadership is showing up. With that in mind, it’s notable (and not in a good way) that neither Biden nor Vice President Kamala Harris have been to the border.

Lots of Republicans have made the trip, however, and an out-of-control border will be a staple issue for the GOP in the 2024 presidential election.

Early on in the administration, when Harris was asked why she hadn’t visited the border since she was helping shape Central American policy, she said she hadn’t been to Europe either. Now she’s been to Europe, and it’s way past time for her to head to the border—not on her own but with Biden. The president needs to own the problem, even though he has limited tools to address it.

Venezuelan immigrant Sharool, 4, cries after her family learned that Texas National Guard troops and state police had blocked a popular border crossing area into El Paso, Texas on Dec. 20.

John Moore/Getty Images

“Biden should have taken ownership of this issue a long time ago. It doesn’t reflect well on him that he ducked,” says Bill Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “But I wouldn’t advise him to go to the border now. This is the worst possible time. He would have taken ownership of complete chaos.”

Galston says the time to go is when the administration has new measures in place, whatever they are, and he can deliver a speech laying out how many presidents have gotten us into this mess, and how he’s the honest Joe who’s going to start digging us out.

That means doing things that neither party will like, but the alternative is a system that is completely overwhelmed.

The numbers tell the story. In fiscal year 2022, more than 2.76 million migrants crossed the southwest border, breaking the previous year’s record by more than a million. Border towns can’t cope with the influx, as homeless shelters are at capacity, and local aid groups strained to breaking point. Many undocumented migrants seeking work disappear into an underground economy, forced to live in the shadows because U.S. laws don’t allow them to work legally.

Why not give them work permits? Because that would provide an incentive for more to come, critics say. It would fill a need for workers in a post-pandemic economy, but for now it’s a bridge too far for an administration trying to play both ends against the middle and coming up short.

One controversial measure under consideration is a transit ban, which says that asylum seekers who pass through another country before reaching the southwest border must apply for asylum in that country. It wouldn’t affect Mexicans, who are now a small number of migrants, but it would affect all others coming from Central and South America.

The uncomfortable truth is that many (if not most) of the migrants are economic refugees. “The point is we’re not dealing with asylum seekers” who are fleeing persecution, says Galston. “These are classic cases of immigrants seeking economic opportunity, but times have changed. We’re no more willing to open our borders than the European countries,” where crackdowns on immigration are now commonplace.

Biden has gotten a lot done despite our polarized politics, but he’s been AWOL on immigration, unwilling or unable to take a stand or find a compromise among competing factions. No one favors open borders, but the administration has been all but paralyzed by internal division that prevents even the most modest reforms from being seen as too restrictive. “It’s an open secret that it’s been a cold war and the president hasn’t stopped it,” says Galston.

Biden doesn’t want to fail by rolling out a reform package that has no legislative path, but if he does nothing, he’s fair game for GOP attacks. That’s part of why he and the vice president should visit the border early in the new year and show the country they are governing partners ready to tackle this issue. The administration needs to tell the public what it’s doing and explain the complexity to the American people.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered 400 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, which is under a state of emergency due to a surge of migrants crossing from Mexico into the city.

John Moore/Getty Images

“When has explaining something to the American people worked?” a cynical friend asked. “Ross Perot,” I replied. He was the eccentric billionaire Texan who in 1992 educated the voters about the looming deficit, en route to finishing a competitive third in that year’s presidential election. The guy who won that election, President Bill Clinton, was a good communicator too—so good that President Barack Obama dubbed him “explainer-in-chief.”

Biden was in the Senate for every single (mostly failed) attempt to grapple with immigration over the last four decades. “I can’t imagine he didn’t learn something from all those failures,” says Galston. What he might have learned is to stay out of the hornets’ nest because that’s what he’s done for the last two years. Now time’s up. He’s the president, he can’t pretend this isn’t his problem.

Republicans smell blood on this issue, and they’re about to make life very unpleasant for Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who has taken the hits from the GOP for the administration’s lack of urgency around border issues. Republicans plan to impeach Mayorkas, but he’s not the problem. His inability to deliver a secure border is just another symptom of an administration that hasn’t come to grips with a crisis it doesn’t know how to handle.

It’s time for Biden to face the music like the seasoned leader he is, head-on.

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