Is Biden’s Border Crackdown Too Much, Too Late?

Migration crisis continues at US - Mexico border

Texas National Guard disperses migrants in Ciudad Juárez in April.
Photo: David Peinado/Anadolu via Getty Images

In a policy move that the White House has been telegraphing for a good while, on Tuesday President Biden signed an executive order that will temporarily cap asylum requests at the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to reduce the number of border crossings and neutralize a big 2024 campaign issue. As the Washington Post explains, it’s a simple idea that could become pretty complex in practice:

Biden’s executive actions, effective at the end of the day Tuesday, impose broad restrictions on asylum as long as illegal border crossings remain above an average of 2,500 per day, according to administration officials.

Migrants ineligible for protection will be returned to their home countries or Mexico unless they express a convincing fear of persecution that would qualify them for an exemption under tougher screening procedures, administration officials said.

A similar cap, accompanied by a major boost in border-security funding, was the centerpiece of a bipartisan legislative deal that Republicans (first in the House, then in the Senate) repudiated earlier this year, reportedly on orders from Donald Trump, who didn’t want to give Biden a “victory” on his own signature issue. Because the executive order is admittedly a “stopgap,” its effectiveness is far from assured, the Post notes:

Since Biden took office, Mexican authorities have agreed for the first time to take back large numbers of non-Mexican border crossers deemed ineligible for U.S. asylum. But Mexico generally limits returns to Central Americans, Cubans, Venezuelans and some Haitians.

That leaves U.S. authorities still facing significant challenges to carrying out quick deportations for the record numbers of migrants arriving from other nations in South America, Africa and Asia, including China. Border authorities have limited detention space and available aircraft for deportation flights, and migrants — even those deemed ineligible for asylum — are often released into the United States pending a court hearing when there is nowhere to hold them and too many obstacles to sending them home.

Despite significant recent drops in border crossings, the cap is below what we’ve seen lately (about 3,700 per day). But the reaction to this new policy indicates that Biden may be in danger of falling between two stools, as has arguably been the case with his policies toward Israel’s war in Gaza. As Semafor reports, progressive Democrats and some Latino activists are very unhappy:

Progressive and Hispanic Democrats vented their frustration Monday night as they prepared for President Biden to unveil a far-reaching executive action aimed at blocking off the Southern border to asylum-seekers.

“I think it’s really disappointing,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal told Semafor, adding that she’d been briefed on the new order’s contents ahead of its Tuesday signing by the president. “[It] just plays into the idea that somehow harsh enforcement is going to work. That was Trump’s approach. We should be showing what the difference is” …

“We shouldn’t fall into the trap that Republicans have set for us,” Texas Rep. Greg Casar, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told Semafor. “It’s going to not help the President politically because I don’t think Fox News is ever going to give him any credit.”

That last part is probably true since the immediate reaction of House Republicans to Biden’s action was that it represented the acceptance of far too many migrants. Indeed, Marjorie Taylor Greene has announced she will introduce articles of impeachment against the president for allowing any border crossings.

So is Biden’s action simultaneously draconian but too tardy to matter? Is it too much, too late?

That’s hard to say. Twenty-seven percent of the electorate called immigration “the most important problem facing the country,” according to a Gallup survey at the end of April. It’s unlikely that voters for whom immigration is a decisive issue are going to be satisfied with a cap on migrant border crossings unaccompanied by more general restrictions on immigration and/or deportation of undocumented people. No matter what Biden does, he will never be able to compete with Trump as a professed border guardian, unless he’s willing to take steps that really would create a revolt among Democrats. But what this step and others might do is reduce the saliency of the “border crisis” and thus allow voters to focus on subjects more congenial to the president.

If the administration can strike the right balance, it’s possible it could turn down the temperature on border security and leave progressive dissenters in the familiar position of having to swallow policies they don’t like because the alternative is a second Trump presidency. Making the best of a bad situation may be the most Democrats can hope for on immigration, an issue that in living memory used to help them more than it hurt them.

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