It’s no secret that Republicans relentlessly exploit the issue of immigration during campaign season to activate their white nationalist base to vote. But they took their rhetoric one step further before the last midterm elections by deploying a strategy of bussing migrants to states controlled by Democrats, using human beings as pawns to foment chaos and advance the “crisis” narrative they count on in election season. Although the midterm elections have ended and a new session of Congress has begun, the airwaves continue to be saturated with stories of chaos brewing at the border. Each new story crystalizes the harm resulting from these Republican political plays and from Democrats’ inaction on the issue.
However, it’s not too late for the Biden administration to begin to rectify its legacy on border policy — and push back against the Republican agenda on the issue — in the two remaining years of this term. Indeed, bold new action from Biden is critical now more than ever. The administration’s most recent announcement of new border policies aimed at increasing “lawful pathways” from abroad while limiting “disorderly and unsafe migration” has already drawn intense scrutiny from advocates who see the announcement as nothing less than a frontal attack on refugee protection at the border. And with good reason: The policies provide for new limited pathways for some people who have not yet had to flee their countries of origin, while continuing to shut the door to people who have been forced to flee and seek protection at the border.
How the GOP Manufactured Recent Crises
It all started in 2022 when Texas and Arizona officials began chartering buses and flights to send migrants to Democratic enclaves, including Washington, D.C. — to Kamala Harris’s doorstep — and also New York and Chicago, among other cities. Gov. Ron DeSantis continued the inhumane spectacle when Florida officials lured people with lies onto a private plane the state chartered to take them to Martha’s Vineyard. But despite the real human consequences and the blatant use of human beings for political purpose, Democrats remained mum on the issue, allowing Republicans’ narrative to grow and fester.
The resulting stories in the press largely addressed culpability (Are DeSantis and Abbott really committing the crime of kidnapping? Is the Biden administration to blame for the influx of migrants at the border?) and speculation around the impact of these stunts on the elections. But these narratives accept a fundamentally flawed premise: that the influx of migrants at the border is a problem that the federal government is incapable of fixing on its own. In reality, while what’s happening at the border is complex, the federal government is wholly equipped to welcome people in a dignified way and — Abbott and DeSantis aside — communities across the country have demonstrated a willingness to help.
Many of us on the ground in border regions have spent years building efforts to welcome and celebrate newcomers. For us, our communities’ capacity and desire to welcome newcomers humanely is not news. But they do offer a hopeful window into our collective capacity to grow welcoming efforts, and to push the federal government to revamp its system for receiving the people who will continue to seek refuge and reunification at our border. This alternative reality is possible — we have proven it time and again.
The U.S. government has reported “record numbers” of apprehensions at the southern border with over 2 million in 2022. But that number represents a mix of people fleeing persecution who were subjected to different outcomes — some who have been apprehended more than once; some expelled under Title 42 or deported under Title 8; and some who were allowed entry into the U.S. to pursue asylum either in or out of long-term detention. Thus, the number cannot be reduced to any single phenomenon other than the lack of a unified approach in the way this administration has responded to people seeking asylum.
Despite the complexity, the federal government has touted its record number of removals while leaders of Republican states have ceaselessly pressed the narrative that the Biden administration has lost control of the border to advance their political agendas.
In addition to vitriol from Republican state leaders, the Biden administration has been criticized by pro-immigrant advocates in Democratic enclaves, and with good reason: The Biden administration, instead of strategically aligning its resources to systematically welcome newcomers at the border, has fueled the crisis narrative by failing to act even on issues that are within its control. In some situations, it has fomented chaos by reportedly releasing asylum-seeking people to addresses of nonprofits and organizations in different parts of the country that have no plans to receive those individuals.
Opportunities for Getting It Right
The administration should know how to receive people in a better way. It has models for how it can be done, and in fact, the federal government has done much of it before. With enough political will, it could do so again now.
Before October 2018, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operated a program known as “Safe Release,” which helped people seeking asylum connect with friends and family in the U.S. to make travel plans before they were released from custody. This ensured that federal government resources were used to prevent exactly what Abbott and other Republicans have been capitalizing on in recent months: refugees at the border who may have a place to go, but are left vulnerable as they figure out how to get there.
It was the abrupt end of Safe Release under the Trump administration that prompted the creation of the San Diego Rapid Response Network (SDRRN) Migrant Shelter — an ad hoc collaboration that local groups organized overnight to ensure people would not be dumped on the streets without adequate support.
Today, along the border in California, the rapid-response creation of the Migrant Shelter has transformed into a massive coalition between local nongovernmental organizations, state and county government, and health partners that models how to receive newcomers with compassion, and in a manner that prioritizes public health. Non-congregate San Diego shelters receive people who have been released from Customs and Border Protection custody for respite sheltering before they travel on to reunify with loved ones throughout the country. At the shelters, individuals receive COVID resources, medical care, hot meals and some legal assistance. California’s example of a humane response by local governments to dysfunction at the federal level stands in stark contrast to the Republican states’ potentially criminal exploitation of asylum-seeking families at their borders.
But let’s not forget that the Republican Party’s brand is crisis: The Republican-led states screaming calamity at the border and transporting migrants to the interior of the country are the ones creating these crises.
These states have relentlessly challenged Biden administration policies in hand-picked district courts, wielding control over the federal immigration agenda. These lawsuits are the reason why there remains no viable pathway for people to lawfully seek asylum at official ports of entry due to Title 42. They are also why the Biden administration was compelled to restart the “Remain in Mexico” program — growing the camps of people who intend to seek asylum in the U.S. but are trapped in Mexican border cities; and they are why the Biden administration has been prohibited from strategically deploying resources to enforce immigration laws. Despite controlling major features of the immigration agenda in this way, the Republican states’ so-called solutions have failed. This means that the crisis narrative that GOP-led states are now weaponizing to justify their political stunts is one largely of their own making.
Still, a whole-of-government response to people fleeing Ukraine provides a window into opportunities for the Biden administration to get it right. Announced last spring, Uniting for Ukraine allows people entry and stay in the United States for two years if they have a supporter in the country who can provide adequate financial support. If approved, beneficiaries receive advance approval to travel via air directly into their destination cities in the United States. Even before Uniting for Ukraine was set up, the federal government humanely processed upwards of 20,000 Ukrainians in April 2022 alone. These efforts illustrate the capacity of the federal government to receive displaced people in large numbers, but it has declined to adopt such a process for people from any other country, despite growing political unrest abroad.
A program that provides relief to people fleeing unrest in Venezuela and is supposedly modeled after Uniting for Ukraine is characterized by drastic differences. The new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program requires Venezuelans to meet onerous requirements to apply for advance permission to travel to the U.S., and initial announcements suggested it was capped at 24,000 refugees per year, despite an obvious need to protect far more people and the absence of any comparable cap on Ukrainians. At the same time, DHS will expel up to 1,000 Venezuelans per day under Title 42.
And the administration’s latest includes a program for people fleeing Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua that similarly will allow 30,000 individuals per month to seek advance permission from their home countries to enter the U.S. on parole while also providing for the expulsion to Mexico of 30,000 individuals per month who don’t go through the formal parole process and seek to enter the U.S. without permission. In other words, the new programs provide limited avenues for relief to people who have not yet been forced to flee, while turning their backs on people seeking protection at the southern border.
This is all thanks to lobbying by the U.S. government to convince Mexico to receive more people expelled under Title 42, all while the Department of Justice supposedly defends the administration’s termination of Title 42 in court.
While increased pathways for people from Central and South America and the Caribbean are long overdue, DHS’s decision to simultaneously increase restrictions at the border tragically suggests it has a long way to go to understand the inhumanity and counterproductive effects of policies that close ports of entry to people seeking asylum.
But there remains time and opportunity for the Biden administration to get it right, even if it is far too late for people who have already been victimized by the administration’s inaction. The Democrats have two years, plenty of experience and local models to look at to develop humane border and immigration policy, to the benefit of the country and the countless people whose lives hang in the balance.
After all, regardless of the Biden administration’s next moves (or lack thereof), we can be sure Abbott, DeSantis and other Republican state leaders will not miss a beat.
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