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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Latest migrant surge poses tough challenges Biden can't sidestep

Migrants wearing T-shirts that read "Biden please let

Migrants wearing T-shirts that read "Biden please let us in" kneel and pray March 2 before petitioning for U.S. asylum in Tijuana, Mexico. Credit: dpa via Zuma Press / TNS

A surge of migrants at the nation's southern border confronts the Biden administration. Only a week ago, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas declined to use the word "crisis" even as his agency shifted border-patrol deployments due to increased migrant numbers.

Now the administration cannot downplay the problem. The number of unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. Border Patrol facilities has reached dramatic highs, according to news reports.

More than 3,200 of these kids were in federal custody Monday, according to documents cited by CNN. Of those, about 2,600 awaited placement in shelters suitable for minors. Only 500 beds were available.

The new administration's reversal of former President Donald Trump's punitive border policies apparently drove the sharp rise in the arrivals. A new and orderly asylum system was promised. So far, "crisis" sounds like a fitting word for the result.

President Joe Biden and his aides have sought help this month from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in managing the latest rush of people fleeing desperate social conditions in Central America.

The fact that the situation resembles a mass influx of migrant children that filled detention centers in 2014 during the Obama administration gives Republicans an opportune talking point in preparation for next year's congressional contests.

For Biden, any response along the lines of ex-President Barack Obama's strategies of deportation and enforcement stands to disappoint or provoke liberal advocates and Democratic elected officials. including some who spouted the "abolish ICE" slogan a short time ago. Like Trump in 2019, Biden has turned to emergency youth facilities in border states, amid the added problem of the coronavirus pandemic.

Handling an influx like this requires an organized short-term response by the federal government. The elusive decades-old drive for a comprehensive new immigration law could bring clarity to the children's situation one day — but offers no assistance now. The concern on all sides is about getting through the day.

Addressing conditions in the migrants' home countries, where the U.S. has tried to discourage them from making the way north, also belongs to the longer term.

Memes and mirages of the past four years, meanwhile, are fading into the background. The new crisis plays out in the absence of Trumpian tales about liberal billionaires funding caravans, jihadi prayer rugs found in the desert or "beautiful" walls to block hordes.

No matter what Biden does or does not do, the underlying facts will no doubt be grim and tough enough. His predecessor made a bizarre show of the issue. But that didn't mean crowds at the border weren't a serious continual problem, which Biden will need to face one way or another.

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