Originally Published in The Washington Post
Opinion by Greg Sargent - March 22, 2021
Under President Biden, Leonhardt says, Democrats are emphasizing “the humane treatment of immigrants, regardless of their legal status,” causing adverse consequences:
He announced a 100-day halt on deportations (which a judge has blocked). He allowed more migrants — especially children — to enter the country, rather than being detained. And Central American migrants, sensing that the U.S. has become more welcoming, are streaming north in the largest numbers in two decades.
This is inadequately rendered. Biden is allowing kids to enter the country, but the previous administration was expelling just about all asylum seekers — single adults, families, unaccompanied children — under Title 42, a covid public health rule.
Now the Biden administration is allowing in children and teens, but not adults and families, who are still getting turned away at an extremely high rate. The border is now largely closed to asylum seekers.
And those kids are being detained, at Border Patrol stations and then by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places them with guardians. Due to overcrowding at ORR, large numbers are forced to stay too long at border stations, causing terrible conditions.
But Leonhardt doesn’t say whether he thinks it would be preferable if all these children were simply expelled back into Mexico.
Leonhardt does acknowledge expulsion “can create miserable conditions on Mexico’s side.” That’s a reference to both Title 42 and “Remain in Mexico,” President Donald Trump’s policy of forcing asylum seekers to wait for asylum hearings in Mexico, which Biden rescinded.
This is true: As CNN reports, under Remain in Mexico, “many waited months, if not years, under squalid conditions and under the threat of extortion, sexual assault and kidnapping.”
But Leonhardt doesn’t say whether this fact does or does not dictate that the kids must be let in. I say it does dictate that: Allow them in, and do everything possible to reform the system so holding conditions are humane and they are more rapidly transferred to guardians. He skirts this dilemma.
Leonhardt commits the same evasion on migrant adults and families. Inescapably, Title 42 can’t be used to expel them forever (in that regard it’s arguably being abused right now, as some public health experts argued), since covid-19 will recede.
What then? Here again the dilemma cannot be evaded: Either you support keeping Trump policies like Remain in Mexico — which was designed not just to keep migrants outside the country, but also to use the fear of violence to dissuade as many as possible from seeking asylum at all — or you want to end them.
I say ending them is the more humane answer. Accepting this does create other hard problems: how to reform processing so asylum seekers don’t wait too long for hearings here, how to improve tracking of asylum seekers while they wait, and how to mitigate terrible civil conditions in Central America — while opening up pathways for people to apply for asylum from their home countries — to discourage migrations.
Leonhardt does acknowledge that the administration is trying to solve those problems with such solutions. But he doesn’t say whether it is better to pursue these efforts at reform than to revert to the pre-Biden alternative.
Leonhardt makes some fair points. Democrats do disagree over what is appropriate to do with migrants awaiting hearings. Tracking them is a tough challenge. Leonhardt says Democrats want to “be more welcoming” but “still have not figured out the limits to that idea.”
But that confuses the true nature of the problem. The vast majority of asylum seekers actually do show up for hearings. The difficulty is how to make the process more efficient and functional so that hearings happen more quickly, a problem that has solutions.
What Leonhardt doesn’t take a firm stand on is whether we should try to implement those solutions, even if success isn’t assured, rather than the alternative.
Similarly, Democrats do disagree over how far to go in deprioritizing the removal of undocumented immigrants already here.
But Leonhardt skirts the importance of the fact that the consensus Democratic solution is to legalize most of those immigrants. Most elected Republicans oppose this.
That does create dilemmas about whom to deport. But the main problem isn’t that Democrats lack clarity on what they would do if they could — they’d legalize that population. It’s that Republicans won’t participate in solving the policy challenge: Everyone knows mass deportations won’t happen, so without legalization, that leaves them in the shadows.
Leonhardt says all these “humane” moves mean people are “streaming north in the largest numbers in two decades.” But the numbers are more complicated than that.
First, apprehensions at the border steadily rose throughout the last nine months of Trump. Second, today’s numbers are inflated by single adults making repeated efforts to cross after Title 42 expulsions. Families and unaccompanied children make up a small percentage of total apprehensions.
Third, there was a huge spike in 2019, during Trump’s draconian regime, which underscores again the many fluctuating reasons for these migrations.
Most important, even if one of these many reasons is that people recognize that under Biden they will be able to exercise their legal right to apply for asylum without facing violence and human rights violations, isn’t that better than the alternative?
The Democrats’ real “immigration problem” is that they’ve accepted that premise, which means trying to tackle the serious logistical challenges that entails. But isn’t that a good thing?