by Carl P. Leubsdorf
The immigration issue has hit Democratic strongholds up north, prompting new moves from the Biden administration.
In both a substantive and political response, it announced it would resume deporting illegal Venezuelan entrants and complete parts of former President Donald Trump’s controversial border wall.
But the impact will likely be mostly symbolic, and the actions won’t do much to solve either aspect of the long-standing problem, which has become the latest threat to President Joe Biden’s reelection.
Last spring, the administration instituted some revised border procedures and temporarily slowed the migrant flow. But recently, the number of asylum seekers crossing the Southern border has soared again, along with Venezuelans fleeing their country’s autocratic regime and continuing economic and social disorder.
Besides Texas border areas, they are flooding northern cities, straining public resources. That prompted criticism from Democratic governors and mayors, among Biden’s strongest political allies in states he needs in next year’s election.
New York Mayor Eric Adams warned the influx will “destroy” the nation’s largest city. Democratic governors in Massachusetts, New York, California and Illinois all demanded more federal help.
In a typical response, Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker called the current situation “untenable,” declaring in a letter to Biden, “Unfortunately, the welcome and aid Illinois has been providing to these asylum seekers has not been matched with support by the federal government.”
Republican foes like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have long criticized the Biden administration’s immigration policies, and some exacerbated the situation by shipping busloads of migrants north.
And congressional Republicans have sought to include new enforcement measures in must-pass funding legislation, a battle certain to be renewed next month when the federal government’s spending authority again expires.
But the impact of criticism changed when it began to come from the president’s Democratic allies — almost certainly a factor in last week’s reversals despite White House denials politics was a motivation.
Just two weeks after extending temporary legal status to more than 70,000 illegal Venezuelan immigrants living in the United States, the administration said Venezuelans arriving after July 31 would be subject to deportation.
Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced the federal government would bypass environmental and conservation laws to complete some 20 miles of Trump’s wall in south Texas.
During his presidential campaign, Biden vowed not to build “another foot of wall” and, upon taking office, halted Trump’s signature project, leaving dozens of gaps and piles of unused equipment.
But last week, he said Congress had required him to spend previously voted funds for the project. “I was told that I had no choice,” Biden said.
Both Biden and Mayorkas also renewed their contention the wall was an ineffective means of halting the influx of illegal entrants.
Noting the reversal, Trump promptly called on Biden to “apologize to me and America for taking so long to get moving.” And the announcement drew sharp criticism from Biden’s normal environmental allies, many liberal Democratic lawmakers and Hispanic groups.
But Dallas Rep. Colin Alford, who is running for the Senate in Texas, called it “a necessary step to help Texas’ overwhelmed border communities deal with the current surge of migrants.”
Many northern states and cities have policies requiring them to house and feed migrants, and the costs have spiraled out of control.
In New York City, where some 120,000 migrants arrived in the past year, many from Southern states, officials said they had spent $1.7 billion by the end of July and expect the year-long cost to reach $5 billion. Adams last week visited Central America to seek help in stemming the tide.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Maura Healy declared a state of emergency in August, calling the situation “desperate.” In Illinois, Pritzger said that, besides 15,000 migrants already there, “we are now seeing busloads [of] more migrants at increasingly higher rates being sent specifically to Chicago each day.”
In recent weeks, the administration provided $770 million for states and cities to deal with migrants and asked Congress to authorize $600 million more.
But judging from burgeoning costs, officials are right when they say that’s insufficient. And the issue threatens to become an even greater problem for the Democrats in next year’s election.
That makes it almost certain the administration will accede to some Republican demands for increased border funds and personnel.
But the issue is basically insoluble without the comprehensive approach the administration can’t institute on its own and Congress has repeatedly ignored — one more political handicap for Biden to surmount.