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Does policy matter? A recent Politico story headlined “Biden’s Vision for the Border Has Gone Bust” notes the explosion in attempts to cross the U.S.–Mexico border but then focuses on structural factors:
U.S. officials and immigration experts say they have theories but no concrete explanations for why the increase is happening now. Many see it as a confluence of destabilizing conditions, some new, some long-standing: a still-raging pandemic, worsening economic crisis and devastation from past natural disasters.
Left unmentioned in this summary is the Biden administration’s own policies. Structural factors obviously play a significant role in migration issues. If our neighbors to the south were as wealthy and stable as our northern neighbor Canada, there would obviously be much less pressure at the border.
But policy intersects with those structural effects. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden made clear that he would break from Donald Trump’s border and immigration policies. Press outlets did not shy away from recognizing the dramatic nature of President Biden’s policy changes earlier this year. On the first full day of his presidency, NPR ran a news story about Biden’s “two major steps to dismantle much-criticized Trump-era immigration policies”: suspending deportations and stopping the “Remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers. That story quoted an activist leader celebrating these changes as “huge.”
Biden has more broadly dialed back immigration enforcement, as this Washington Post story from May explains. Providing another incentive for border crossing, President Biden and congressional Democrats have trumpeted efforts to pass a mass amnesty (even through reconciliation — thereby risking blowing a hole in both immigration enforcement and the reconciliation process).
The Biden administration has also substantially changed the dynamics of border control. During the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration invoked Title 42 to expel many border-crossers immediately. The Biden administration has exempted unaccompanied children as well as many family units from Title 42. Since Biden assumed the presidency, there’s been a significant growth in migration from these categories: The number of individuals in family units encountered by the Border Patrol jumped from about 7,000 in January to over 50,000 in June, while the monthly number of unaccompanied minors went from 5,600 to over 15,000 during that period. July’s numbers, once they are finalized, are likely to be even higher.
Title 42 is still applied broadly to single individuals, but the number of apprehensions of those individuals has doubled, from 62,000 to 113,000. (The use of Title 42 can also inflate the number of apprehensions, as many of the border-crossers encountered in a given month were actually ejected before — likely under Title 42 — and now are trying to cross the border again. Unaccompanied minors and many family units, however, are not expelled under Title 42 and instead are processed by immigration authorities, often being allowed into the U.S.) Activist groups are suing to force the Biden administration to end the use of Title 42 completely, but the administration is keeping it partly in place for now.
To quote Politico, a “confluence of destabilizing conditions” has contributed to the overwhelming of the border, but one of those conditions is the Biden administration’s own policy program. The chaos at the border has helped overwhelm the asylum system and interfered with the goals of a humanitarian asylum policy. It also threatens to polarize the nation’s immigration debate even more.