Migrants seeking asylum wait to be processed after crossing the...

Migrants seeking asylum wait to be processed after crossing the border Wednesday, in San Diego, and inset: Mexico’s president-elect Claudia Sheinbaum. Credit: AP / Eugene Garcia, Marco Ugarte

By now, it's well established that America’s current migration mess springs from a long-term federal policy failure.

For decades, the difficulties in staving off an uncontrolled flow of people across the Mexico border into the U.S. have stemmed from the chronic inability of both major parties, in Congress and the White House, to agree on a new, coherent, and relevant immigration policy.

No such deal came to be under President Donald Trump, who rode this issue to the White House in 2016, even when both the Senate and House rested in Republican hands. For good reason, GOP leaders mostly ignored his emblematic “wall” proposal. But they refused to protect from deportation the young people brought here as children by parents without documents, a measure they could have leveraged into support for tighter border security.

President Joe Biden, who entered office hoping to see landmark legislation address the dilemma, had postured in 2019: “The idea that a country of 330 million people cannot absorb people who are in desperate need and who are justifiably fleeing oppression is absolutely bizarre.” 

Now — in an election year — will such statements by Biden serve as a sad political parallel to President George H.W. Bush’s “read my lips” pledge on new taxes? The Democrat's detractors hope so.

SLOW RESPONSE

The Biden administration has been maddeningly slow to plainly recognize the voluminous and uncontrolled surge of migrants at the nation’s borders. Early on, they disputed the word “crisis,” into which the situation then spiraled. Migrants from all over the world have strained the shelter systems and budgets of sanctuary cities and states like New York.

Just this past week, a 19-year-old Venezuelan migrant staying in a Queens shelter was charged with multiple counts of attempted murder of a police officer, assault and other crimes after allegedly shooting and wounding two NYPD cops who live on Long Island. It does not take a xenophobe to see this as a flashing red light.

This year, Biden and a team of bipartisan senators crafted legislation to beef up the numbers of border police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel, and officers and judges to process claims of legal asylum. Responding to Trump’s wishes, however, Republicans in Congress killed the legislation, refusing to allow any dilution of their signature cry for the presidential campaign: “Invasion!”

Since he was denied GOP cooperation, Biden rightly acted on his own authority to crack down. Last week, he issued an executive order that bars migrants from seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border when crossings surge. Noncitizens who cross the southern border unlawfully or without authorization will generally be ineligible for asylum, his proclamation stressed. It’s a short-term strategy to reduce numbers and relieve pressure on localities.

Better late than never, but the politics are so transparent. Given the influx of recent years and the related housing and employment complications regarding migrants, Biden at this point does not have the luxury to spend time salving the criticism by some Democrats that he’s falling back on Trump’s hard line on immigration. Sometimes, a big U-turn is the right thing to do, as it was when Trump in 2018 bowed to a massive outcry and ditched his cruel policy of separating families with children at the border.

Looking back candidly, Biden's message from the get-go should have been firm. He should have let it be known that for most people pushed or pulled out of their native nations, it would not be worth the risky trek seeking asylum at our border. His welcoming posture went too far in trying to counter his defeated predecessor’s public theatrics.

NEED HELP FROM MEXICO

For the longer term, it’s important to pay attention to what happens on both sides of the border. That’s where current and future U.S. relations with Mexico come in — regardless of who wins the White House here this year.

Mexicans just elected a new president, Claudia Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City. Her country and the U.S. are each other’s largest trading partners. Biden called her with congratulations, and the White House said in a statement, “The two leaders emphasized their commitment to continuing the strong and collaborative partnership that will advance democracy, security, and prosperity in both countries.”

Biden’s administration must lean on Sheinbaum more than it would under normal circumstances — which means the president must press the issue with her full-force, right away.

On policy, she’s not expected to depart radically from Manuel Lopez Obrador, her predecessor and ally. But she has pledged to go after criminals more aggressively. Crime and cartels are not just an internal threat in Mexico; they affect the U.S., which also must struggle against the evils of fentanyl and the abusive enterprises of human traffickers.

For the last six months of this term, Biden and the Democrats in the Senate majority must act with urgency on the foreign and domestic fronts — and pressure Mexico to finally get some grip on who’s heading into the U.S. That would be in the common interest no matter who “wins” politically.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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