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America's Border Dilemma

November 24, 2021 (1 min read)

Muzaffar Chishti, Doris M. Meissner, Foreign Affairs, November 23, 2021

"President Joe Biden campaigned on an unabashedly pro-immigration platform, in stark contrast to the approach of his predecessor. Delivering on his promises, however, has proved elusive. Illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexican border have reached a level not seen since 2000, with migrants coming from a broader range of countries than in the past. Certainly, Biden’s election enticed more migrants to attempt the trip, but the conditions in the countries these migrants are leaving have become an increasingly powerful impetus as well. The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated Latin American economies. Tropical Storms Eta and Iota walloped Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador late last year, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without homes or running water. Violence, moreover, is endemic in the region.

Although Biden has promised to provide humane treatment to those seeking entry, he doesn’t have many tools at his disposal to make good on that vision. Court decisions have kept key Trump administration border policies in place, and there is insufficient support in Congress for Biden’s proposed immigration reforms. At the same time, Republicans are eager to make the claim in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections that Biden has allowed chaos to prevail at the border. Immigration is already prominent among the issues dragging down his approval numbers. Biden may have promised a break with the previous administration’s approach, but as he confronts the surge at the border, he is forced to resort to familiar measures to deal with the influx: enforcement and diplomacy.

... These are complex, long-term initiatives that should begin at home with long-sought changes in U.S. immigration laws that align immigration opportunities with future economic needs and demographic trends. These reforms, however, have proved politically intractable for more than two decades. The Biden administration has been unable to make headway even while the Democratic Party holds a majority in both houses of Congress. Still, forestalling escalating and chaotic migration flows can succeed only through multilateral actions and commitments. Migration and mobility are inherent qualities of healthy, prosperous societies, but only when they are acts of choice, not desperation, by both receiving countries and migrants themselves. Building strategies that enable migration to be safe, legal, and orderly is clearly hard to attain but a vital foreign policy goal for hemispheric relations going forward."