During the past decade, three U.S. Presidents have each faced a humanitarian emergency at the southern border.
Barack Obama did in 2014, when tens of thousands of children from Central America arrived, without their parents, to seek asylum.
Five years later, under Donald Trump—and the harshest border-enforcement regime in more than half a century—record numbers of children and families overwhelmed federal authorities.
Now, two months into Joe Biden’s Presidency, it’s his turn.
Last Thursday, the topic dominated the first press conference he has given since taking office.
“What we’re doing right now is attempting to rebuild the system that can accommodate what is happening today,” he said.
“It’s going to take time.”
There are currently some eighteen thousand unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. custody, including more than five thousand who remain in holding cells,
as the government scrambles to find space to house them.
Republicans who were silent when Trump was separating migrant children from their parents and eviscerating the asylum system are now denouncing “Biden’s border crisis.
” The messaging appears to be effective; it’s causing all sorts of confusion.
Biden is turning away forty per cent of asylum-seeking families and virtually all single adults arriving at the border, under a controversial Trump policy known as Title 42, which he has left in place.
Even so, everyone from TV news anchors to the President of Mexico is blaming Biden for encouraging more migrants to travel north, because he vowed to stop Trump’s heedless cruelty.
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, tweeted that Biden has “emphasized the humane treatment of immigrants, regardless of their legal status.”
He meant it as a criticism.
The Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, has predicted that the United States will encounter more migrants by the end of 2021 than it has at any point in the past two decades.
He has also, like the rest of the Administration, avoided labelling the situation a crisis.
“This is not new,” he said.
“We have experienced migration surges before.”
What is new, though, is the pace: for most of March, about five hundred and fifty children have been arriving at the border every day.
Both Mayorkas and Biden have gone on television to announce that the border is closed; at a White House press briefing, Roberta Jacobson, from the National Security Council,
made the announcement in Spanish.
But it was directed more at critics in Congress than at people in Honduras and Guatemala, the countries from which most of the families and children are coming.
The word “crisis” is both an overstatement and an understatement of the situation.
There were more families and children seeking asylum at the border under Trump in 2019 than there are now.
And the current numbers, if higher than Biden anticipated, are not unexpected.
The pandemic has led to renewed desperation in Central America, as have two hurricanes that devastated the region last fall, displacing tens of thousands of people.
Yet, in another sense, the situation is worse than much of the public understands, because the issues involved are genuinely complex and nearly impossible to settle as long as policymakers in Washington
continue to regard decency as a sign of political weakness rather than of moral strength.
The emergencies of the past decade are really three chapters of the same struggle: an exodus from Central America has been under way, as families and children attempted to escape violence,
poverty, and government corruption.
The immigration system at the border, which was built up in the nineteen-nineties, with single, job-seeking adults from Mexico in mind, was not designed to handle a population seeking asylum on this scale.
On average, it takes almost two and a half years to resolve an asylum claim, and there’s now a backlog of 1.3 million pending cases, up from half a million under Obama.
by Jonathan Blitzer
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