US-Mexico border: Biden under pressure

In the eyes of the Administration, the current issue at the US-Mexico border is dire. But the President’s own party is not squarely behind him

Asylum seeking migrants from Central America await transport after crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico on a raft in Penitas, Texas, U.S., March 12, 2021. On the far left are unaccompanied minors Marjorie, 11, Doris, 6 and Pablo, 9, all from Honduras. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

At the first press conference of US President Joe Biden, a reporter asked him: “Do you take responsibility for everything that's happening at the border now? […] Did you move too quickly to roll back some of the executive orders of your predecessor?”. His response was decisive: “First of all, all the policies that were underway were not helping at all, did not slow up the amount of immigration, […]. And rolling back the policies of separating children from their mothers? I make no apology for that. Rolling back the policies of ’remain in Mexico’, sitting on the edge of the Rio Grande in a muddy circumstance with not enough to eat? I make no apologies for that". In the eyes of the Administration, the current issue at the US-Mexico border is dire. It recognizes that not everything is working as smoothly as it should, and is keen “to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration,” considering that the measures President Trump took to curb immigration did not succeed.

On the other hand, critics claim Biden’s efforts have not led to improvements, and this has pleased Republicans to no end. According to James Jay Carafano of The Heritage Foundation, “in a few short months, illegal border crossings have reached historic highs [because] Biden dramatically changed border policies that had helped stem the tide of illegal immigration". Republicans have their eyes on the 2022 midterms elections, in which they hope to reclaim at least one of the two chambers of Congress; and regarding immigration and US policy, one should remember that 2016 Trump’s winning bid for the presidency was based on getting back jobs for American workers and keeping the southern border safe and locked. Immigration could once again become the tipping point that favors Republican candidates.

To make matters worse for the Biden administration, the President’s own party is not squarely behind him on this issue. As soon as one migrant facility for children opened, Democratic congresswoman Alexandra Occasio-Cortez was ready to criticize the increased influx of underage immigrants in close quarters during these times of Covid. Just as the defund the police movement cost many votes and seats to the democratic party during the 2020 election, this unpragmatic line of action could be counterproductive.

Unfortunately, what is happening is not an extraordinary event. Fluctuations in immigration are not strictly related to political decisions; they are also heavily influenced by cyclical conditions such as the milder temperatures of spring, which makes crossing the border much more feasible. Though the weather was not a major factor in immigration increases in 2020 (for obvious reasons), it was in 2019, in spite of the oval office’s anti-immigration champion President Trump. The main difference between the two years is in the share of immigrants of Mexican origin and in the share of single adults: in May 2019 Mexicans apprehended at the southern border accounted for only 13% of total detainees; in February 2021, the numbers rose to 42%, while the share of immigrants from the Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) fell from 78% to 46%. Even if the proportion should change in the next months, this datum, paired with the sharp relative increase of single adults (from 28% in 2019 to 71% in 2021) instead of entire families (from 64% to 20%), seems to suggest that the main drive behind immigration is once again economic and not, as it was in 2019, gang violence, climate change or general dissatisfaction with the violent, autocratic and corrupt governments of Central America, although these factors did not suddenly disappear and will play a prominent role in the next years.

This issue is not one for easy and rapid fixes, as both otherwise diametrically opposed Republicans and radical Democrats appear to believe; rather, it is one that will burden the U.S. for the foreseeable future. To improve the situation, it would be necessary to conceive and execute a development plan of greater scope for Central America. Unfortunately, this is not, and neither should it be, the priority of an administration which already has its hand full with the vaccination campaign, the stimulus plan and international relations’ red hot environment. One can only hope that when things eventually settle down, U.S. leadership will be better able to tend to its neighbors to the south and not shut them out altogether.

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