In late September, more than 12,000 migrants slept in tents or on dirt floors under the International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas, surrounded by garbage, in stifling heat, as they waited to be processed by U.S. immigration authorities.
They were not the first nor the last men, women, and children from Central America and Haiti willing to travel hundreds or thousands of miles in search of a better life. This summer, some 200,000 encounters with migrants occurred on the southern border each month, the highest number in two decades. Like his predecessors, President BidenJoe BidenManchin lays down demands for child tax credit: report Abrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Pentagon, State Department square off on Afghanistan accountability MORE does not have a silver bullet to resolve the crisis. And the limited options available to him are politically perilous.
Over 60 percent of Americans agree that immigrants contribute to economic growth and enhance our nation’s culture and values. But deep divisions lie at — or just below — the surface: 42 percent of Americans believe immigration has been “mostly good,” 42 percent “equally good and bad,” 16 percent “mostly bad.”
The headwinds are coming at President Biden from both political parties: 76 percent of Republicans, 46 percent of independents, and 16 percent of Democrats think a border wall and enhanced border security is a better approach than making it easier for immigrants to enter the country legally; 68 percent of “strong liberals” say it is “acceptable” to illegally immigrate to the United States.
Gov. Doug DuceyDoug DuceyArizona launches M program to help families pay utility bills GOP governors traveling to border to unveil new security initiative Treasury says Arizona can't use federal COVID-19 aid for anti-mask education grants MORE (R-Ariz.) claims that the president has given migrants the impression “that our borders are open, asylum policies have changed, and an amnesty bill is in the works.” Gov. Greg AbbottGreg AbbottSupport for governors sliding in states without vaccine mandates: survey Sunday shows - Buttigieg warns supply chain issues could stretch to next year Arkansas governor backs employer vaccine mandates MORE (R-Texas) has provided a $250 million “down payment” for a border wall.
On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezSinema's no Manchin, no McCain and no maverick Ocasio-Cortez goes indoor skydiving for her birthday Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention MORE (D-N.Y.) recently declared that the Biden administration’s decision to house children in emergency shelters “is not okay, never has been okay, will never be okay.” Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Sanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan MORE (I-Vt.) wants to expand the definition of those who qualify for asylum under the Refugee Act of 1980 (persons escaping persecution “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion”) to include individuals displaced by climate change and victims of violence by non-state perpetrators.
Unlikely to be considered, let alone passed, by the U.S. Congress, Biden’s strategic priority for immigration — comprehensive reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, especially DACA recipients — is not directly relevant to the crisis on the southern border. His commitment of $4 billion to combat economic insecurity, violence, and corruption in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador will not reduce the numbers of migrants for years, if at all.
For now, then, Biden’s approach to immigration at the southern border must be largely tactical and attuned to political realities. His policies can be (and already are) more just and humane than Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE’s “zero tolerance” and “shock and awe” deterrence. Biden must also do what he can to immunize himself against charges that he supports “open borders.”
Here are a few suggestions:
When he addresses immigration, Biden should emphasize that in this “nation of immigrants” individuals have a legal — and moral — right to seek asylum. And that the backlog of cases, which reached an all-time high of 1.7 million people in April 2020, and the length of time for them to be resolved (an average of 930 days for individuals who were ultimately approved), have contributed significantly to the crisis.
Long delays, he should explain, incentivize people who know they are ineligible for asylum to apply anyway so they can stay in the United States while their cases are pending.
Biden should remind Americans that he is trying to expedite the process by allowing officers of the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services to adjudicate cases instead of immigration judges. Implementation, alas, will take time (a 60-day public comment period is required) and decisions can be appealed, but — as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro MayorkasAlejandro MayorkasJohns Hopkins to launch degree program in cybersecurity and policy The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - New front in mandate wars; debt bill heads to Biden DHS to end workplace raids, shift focus to employers over undocumented workers MORE has promised — those who are deemed ineligible “will be expeditiously removed.”
As he reiterates that he has reversed Donald Trump’s attempts to narrow the criteria for asylum and prohibit applications between ports of entry, the president should risk disappointing progressive Democrats by announcing that he is not thinking at present of changing the criteria for asylum prescribed in the Refugee Act of 1980.
Biden should redouble his efforts to persuade the government of Mexico to issue work permits for Central American migrants. He should work with international agencies and governments and civil organizations in Mexico and Central America to provide more humane treatment of refugees and migrants.
Biden should explain why some asylum seekers are detained, while others are released into the community. And he should tout his administration’s more humane treatment of children who cross the border unaccompanied by parents or relatives. He should reconsider relying on public health grounds for the summary expulsion of asylum seekers.
Biden should call on Congress to allocate more resources to provide safer and more sanitary living conditions for asylum seekers. He should seek increased funding for better training and support of border patrol agents.
In taking these steps, Biden should recognize — and publicly acknowledge — that the best he can do is demonstrate his ability to manage a crisis that has bedeviled Republican and Democratic presidents for decades. A crisis that requires patience and persistence, firmness and fairness, compassion, and competence.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of "Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century."