Border influx intrudes on Biden’s victory lap for ARP

by Michael Smolens

Alternate partisan political realities are emerging that could go a long way toward shaping next year’s congressional campaigns.

President Joe Biden and Democrats are fanning out across the country to extol the benefits of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief measure aimed at assisting tens of millions of people and revitalizing the economy — with a potential political advantage down the line.

Republicans are increasingly focused on the rise in illegal border crossings, particularly by unaccompanied children, and blame Biden’s policies for encouraging it. Similar increases confronted previous administrations, however.

Regardless, combating illegal immigration and controlling the southern border have long been bedrock campaign issues for the GOP.

Last Monday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., led a delegation of Republicans to Texas to highlight what Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott called a “crisis” along his state’s border with Mexico — using a word the president and his advisers avoid.

It’s hard to predict what the political landscape will look like when the 2022 election season begins in earnest. But Democrats plan to make Republicans explain why they opposed the COVID-19 recovery measure that put money in people’s pockets, gave businesses a lifeline and, according to polls, has strong public support.

If the Biden administration is unable to calm the situation at the border — much less make headway on a long-term immigration fix — Democratic candidates in swing districts no doubt will be pressed by Republicans to answer for that.

The pandemic so far has taken more than half a million lives, sickened millions more and devastated livelihoods. The influx of migrants has overwhelmed some border communities, but the impacts of immigration are felt far beyond border regions.

The new administration, not even two months old, appeared to be caught flat-footed by something experts said it should have known was coming. It’s not just Republicans who are complaining about the federal response.

“Our country is currently unprepared to handle a surge in migrants in the middle of the pandemic,” Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said earlier this month. “Migrants are illegally crossing, potentially exposing border communities to the coronavirus and putting us at risk.”

Many border communities in Mexico also are struggling, often lacking resources to accommodate migrants who cannot get into the United States.

Some people stuck south of the border and their advocates have expressed frustration at the lack of information from the administration about their prospects, or even a timeline for consideration of whether they would be allowed into the U.S.

That information void has contributed to misinformation, with migrants saying they have been told by smugglers that they would be welcomed into the United States under Biden, according to The New York Times.

Biden came into office with a clearly different tone than former President Donald Trump, who cracked down not only on illegal immigration, but limited legal immigration by bringing the asylum process to a near halt and taking other actions.

While moving to undo some of Trump’s policies, the new administration has been urging people in Central America and Mexico not to attempt to come to the United States at this time.

But Biden built expectations with promises of a more humanitarian approach to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers. Yet, thousands of children have been detained, some of them warehoused in the same adult detention centers operated by the Customs and Border Protection agency that were used for unaccompanied minors under Trump.

The children are supposed to be moved to more appropriate shelters by the Department of Health and Human Services, but the demand overwhelmed the supply of other places to put them, according to administration officials. In acknowledging these shortcomings, the Biden administration also blames its predecessor.

“We recognize this is a big problem,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday. “The last administration left us a dismantled and unworkable system, and like any other problem, we’re going to do everything we can to solve it. So our focus here is on solutions.”

The administration over the weekend enlisted the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which specializes in providing quick humanitarian aid, to help provide migrant children with better services and temporary shelter.

Late last week, the Biden administration said it was ending a Trump policy that it said discouraged potential sponsors of unaccompanied migrant children, including parents and relatives, from coming forward because they feared their information would be shared with immigration enforcement agencies, according to CNN.

If people trust that change, it could be significant. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday that 80% of the children, most of whom are from Central America, have a relative in the U.S. and 40% have a parent. So the potential to link most of these minors with a sponsor is there.

Meanwhile, an estimated 26,000 asylum seekers who were returned to Mexico under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols — known widely as the “Remain in Mexico” program — and still have active immigration court cases in the U.S. were eligible to enter the country as of last month under Biden, according to Kate Morrissey of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

It will take time to process all of them, however, and tens of thousands more remain in limbo.

Like the Trump administration, the Biden administration continues to immediately turn away undocumented adults and families crossing the border. Unlike Trump, Biden is allowing children who cross into the U.S. without families to remain.

For now, the situation both north and south of the border looks desperate, and Republicans say that’s no coincidence.

“You can’t help but notice that the administration changes, and there’s a surge,” Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., recently told Fox News.

But the argument doesn’t fit neatly into a partisan framework.

Similar increases of unaccompanied children at the border occurred in 2014 under former President Barack Obama and in 2018-19 under Trump. Poverty, violence and natural disasters have been identified as underlying causes.

Until the United States gets a handle on dealing with such increases, this cycle of migration likely will continue — along with the contentious politics.

Michael Smolens is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.