The Memo: Border surge collides with Biden immigration push

The migrant surge at the southern border is turning into a big problem for the Biden administration.

The number of children without a parent detained at the border was close to 10,000 in February — roughly double the number from 12 months earlier.

Border apprehensions overall topped 100,000 last month, a rise of more than 25 percent over January’s figure.


There is no sign of the surge abating.

The administration recently deployed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to try to tackle the situation. Existing facilities are at a strained capacity.

“It is just a perfect storm right now at the border,” said Patrick Granfield, a national security appointee in the Obama administration. “You have COVID, you have two hurricanes that struck Central America, you have pent-up demand [to get into the United States], and you have an asylum system that has been dismantled. So the tools the Biden administration has to address these events are really degraded.”

White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiBlinken speaks with Israeli counterpart amid escalating conflict Hillicon Valley: Feds eye more oversight of pipelines after Colonial attack | White House monitoring fuel shortages | Democrats urge Facebook to reverse WhatsApp update | Biden announces deal with Uber, Lyft for free vaccine rides Biden sent letter to Palestinian president over 'current situations' MORE also sought to shift some of the blame to former President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE.

“The last administration left us a dismantled and unworkable system,” Psaki said at a press briefing Monday.

Wherever culpability lies, the situation greatly complicates Biden’s attempts to enact broad-scale immigration reform — an effort that already faced significant challenges.


More modest efforts, such as attempts to resolve the fate of the so-called Dreamers who were brought to the United States as children, also face a steepening path.

Politically, the border surge gives Republicans a fresh avenue for criticism of the administration — one that they have been eager to pursue, having been on the back foot while opposing Biden’s broadly popular COVID-19 relief bill, which he signed into law last week.

On Monday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyHouse fails to pass drug bill amid Jan. 6 tensions READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE (R-Calif.) led a delegation of GOP lawmakers on a trip to the border. McCarthy referred to the “Biden border crisis” while speaking to reporters and asked, “How much spread of COVID is he creating every single day by his policies along the border?”

Democrats push back against what they see as GOP demagoguery on a complex issue. Conservative media, they note, have been hammering the issue, much as a “caravan” of would-be migrants received saturation coverage in the days before the 2018 midterm elections.

Democrats also look askance at Republican attempts to find the moral high ground on the topic, given the party’s backing of Trump’s advocacy of child separations during his time in office.

“Kevin McCarthy and the Republican Party are playing politics rather than proposing solutions. They don’t want better policies, they want more power,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, an organization that seeks liberalization of immigration laws.

Still, Republicans are keeping up a barrage of criticism.

“Biden refuses to recognize the crisis, and is content to abandon border communities, even as his policies exacerbate a situation getting worse by the minute,” Republican National Committee spokesman Tommy Pigott said in a statement emailed to reporters Monday.

The timing of the growing crisis is particularly hazardous for Biden. He had set out a plan for comprehensive immigration reform at the very start of his term, which included a pathway to citizenship for the vast majority of the people currently in the country without authorization.

That effort always faced an uphill climb since it would need some level of GOP support in the 50-50 Senate. The opposition party has grown more hawkish on immigration in recent years.

This week House Democrats are pushing a more piecemeal approach, including a fix for Dreamers and another measure aimed at creating a path to citizenship for farmworkers.

But now they are battling against the political headwinds churned up by the situation at the border.


Democrats and Republicans alike agree that the overall situation in the United States also creates challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic fuels public apprehension, especially in border areas, about thousands of undocumented arrivals. Meanwhile, unemployment levels remain elevated — another factor that tends to create a desire to batten down the hatches rather than be especially welcoming of new migrants.

“Immigration reform has been a thorny issue for years. George W. Bush of course tried to get it passed, and was not able to do so, and no one has been able to do so since,” said Keir Murray, a Texas-based Democratic strategist.

Murray added that any such efforts were especially hard “in the context of a challenging economy where lots of Americans are out or work or working reduced hours, and where COVID also increases the sensitivities around immigration.”

John Feehery, a former Republican House leadership aide who is also a columnist for The Hill, said that even if the situation at the southern border were more stable, “it is going to be hard to get immigration reform anyways because of the nature of the Congress. The John McCains of the world are gone. Even Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate votes to repeal OCC 'true lender' rule Democrats cool on Crist's latest bid for Florida governor Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls MORE is probably not going to want to pursue this when unemployment is so high.”

For now, it’s the action at the border that is soaking up the political and media attention. Even in the White House, there seems to be an acknowledgment that it needs to be dealt with before any broader reform can gain traction.

“We recognize this as a problem. We’re focused on addressing it,” Psaki said Monday.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.