Less Hysteria, More Solutions on the Border, Migration Please

In a new op-ed I make the case that Brazil’s failure to contain its new COVID variant has become a threat to the entire region, one which the US should respond to by standing up a comprehensive campaign to defeat COVID throughout the Americas.

Standing up such a regional defeat COVID/build back better effort will also help the US create a clearer predicate for launching a long term strategy to bring peace, stability and prosperity to our Southern neighbors in Central America and perhaps Mexico too — a long overdue priority which will, among many other benefits, help stem current and future flows to the border. The rising rates of Mexicans apprehended at the border this year suggests that the weakening of the US and regional economies due to COVID has started creating migratory pressures in countries beyond the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) — something which could get far worse if the kind of COVID outbreak we are seeing in Brazil spreads across the region. Part of our strategy to stop the current rising flow to the border should be to stand up a broad based regional campaign to defeat COVID and help the countries of the Americas stand their economies back up.

As for what’s happening at the border today, let’s look at some of the new data available to us now. First, the current flow is within recent and historic norms. This thread of various Pew Research reports shows that if we see 1m-1.2m border apprehensions this year we will be very much in line with the annual flows the US saw from the mid 1980s to the late 2000s, a time when we had far fewer border patrol. It is also in line with 2019, the last year of data before COVID dramatically slowed the flows in 2020. As Pew begins its most recent analysis: “The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended nearly 100,000 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in February, the tenth consecutive month of increased apprehensions and a return to levels last seen in mid-2019.” This Pew report finds that after years of reduced flow, things really picked up in 2019, and that what we are seeing now is a continuation of trends in place prior to Biden becoming President. A new analysis in the Washington Post today comes to similar conclusions. The huge flows we saw in 2019 came of course at a time when the President Trump was in the White House and Mitch McConnell controlled the Senate.

What is different this time, however, is the increase in Mexicans arriving at the border, as we discussed earlier, and the new surge of unaccompanied minors, something that both the Obama and Trump Administrations had to deal with during their Presidencies. What has changed now, and you could see the immigration “market” responding to it, is that Biden, unlike Trump, is not sending underage migrants home; and is, instead, as the law and our humanity requires, allowing them to apply for asylum here in the US. As this new Washington Post analysis shows the numbers of unaccompanied minors has increased rapidly, and this month will be 17,000, up from 5,000 in January. While this is a big increase, an extra 12,000–15,000 children arriving into the US is not going to bring the country to its knees. Almost everyone else is being expelled. How sustainable this number is over time, and whether it is, as some have argued, the result of a short-term pent up COVID deferred desire to migrate we just don’t know yet. And it has to be noted that the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border now are single adults — not families or kids — a trend which also began under Trump, and another sign that COVID related economic pressures may be restarting more traditional regional migratory patterns — young men looking for a better life.

This new Post article does a good job explaining all the steps the Administration is currently taking to deal with the flow of kids and to deter the dangerous trek to the border for all migrants. For as the Biden Administration keeps repeating, the border is closed, and the Administration has really stepped its effort to prevent people, particularly kids and families, from making the dangerous trek.

Finally, we want to go on record wholeheartedly agreeing with this analysis from the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent — the Trump Administration’s border policies were an indefensible legal, moral, policy, geopolitical and humanitarian catastrophe. Not only did they purposefully send children and families to their deaths, but they also didn’t stop the flow of migrants to the border; under Trump we saw the highest rates of flow to the border that we’ve seen in the past 15 years, and rates of flow to the border rose every month in the last nine months of his Presidency. Trump failed to solve this problem, and left an extraordinary mess for the Biden Administration to deal with — as they did in so many other areas.

The mess Trump left Biden of course is compounded by the repeated blocking by the extremists in the GOP of broadly popular, bi-partisan efforts to modernize the immigration system in 2006, 2007 and 2013. If any of these “comprehensive immigration reform” bills had passed the US would be in far better shape today to manage periodic increases in flow like we’ve seen in the last few years, and in ways consistent with American values. Like so many other challenges facing the country — climate, infrastructure, universal health care, gun safety — decades of Republican policy extremism has prevented the country from adopting common sense solutions on migration and the border which would have made the lives of Americans materially better.

US has been at 100,000 border apprehensions in March many times before, including in 2019.

It is clear now that Joe Biden is intending to try to systemically address many of these long delayed national priorities, some years overdue, including immigration and border issues. And while the Biden team was perhaps a bit slow to respond to the increase in unaccompanied minors, the White House, State, DHS and HHS are moving now, as the Post article above details. Given the enormity of the COVID and economic crisis Biden is facing (add SolarWinds, domestic radicalization, etc), and what should be rightly seen as Republican sabotage in not having a real transition and slow-walking early Biden nominees, it is perhaps understandable that something like this could happen in the early days of a new Administration (HHS Secretary Becerra, who oversees the housing of the unaccompanied minors, wasn’t confirmed until late last week). And let’s be clear — an extra 15,000–20,000 migrant kids is not a national crisis, and efforts to make it into one, coming from a party with such an abhorrent record on migration issues, is a lot for many of us to take.

If Republicans are truly worried about the increasing flow at the border, there are a few things they could do right away:

- Support additional funding for temporary housing of unaccompanied minors in the US

- Work with Senator Schumer to fast track all Biden nominees at DHS and HHS who will be working on these tough issues

- Help the Administration stand up and implement a COVID plan for the Americas

- Endorse various efforts to modernize the immigration system, as Senate Republicans did in both 2006 and 2013.

Team Biden is stepping up to address a tough issue left behind from the previous Administration. It is one Republicans appear to care about a lot. Democrats should ask GOPers to join them in coming up with a comprehensive response to the challenge like the one outlined above, rather than wasting everyone’s time with photo ops at Trump’s wasteful wall.

I run NDN/NPI, a DC think tank. Clinton & DNC alum, Tufts grad, Aspen Crown Fellow. Father of 3 great kids, truly lucky husband. Proud globalist.

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