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Business News/ Politics / Why Biden’s Border Policies Aren’t Working

Why Biden’s Border Policies Aren’t Working


Migrant arrests are rising again, fueled by a record number of families and a surge of Venezuelans attempting to enter the U.S. from Mexico.

Migrants waited along the border wall in El Paso, Texas, in May as the pandemic-era measure known as Title 42 was set to expire. Premium
Migrants waited along the border wall in El Paso, Texas, in May as the pandemic-era measure known as Title 42 was set to expire.

WASHINGTON—Four months after President Biden switched strategies to stem illegal crossings at the southern border, the new plan isn’t working.

Border crossings from Mexico into the U.S. are on the rise again after an unexpected drop in May and June, when the administration ended its use of the pandemic-era measure known as Title 42 and replaced it with a new set of policies it said would work as a better deterrent.

U.S. Border Patrol arrested roughly 182,000 people at the U.S.-Mexico border in August, a return to the same level of arrests it made the previous August under Title 42, according to people familiar with the data.

The rising numbers continue to not only draw criticism from Republicans, as Biden runs for re-election, but also further inflame a political crisis within the Democratic Party. Leaders of blue cities and states are blaming the White House for the strain that tens of thousands of newly arriving asylum seekers have put on them.

About 63% of those surveyed in a recent Wall Street Journal poll said they disapproved of Biden’s actions in securing the border. The survey also showed a rise in those who named the border as a top issue since April.

The crux of Biden’s new strategy at the border is to dissuade migrants from crossing into the U.S. illegally by increasing the penalties for doing so—and by offering them newly created paths to move here legally.

But that carrot-and-stick strategy has so far failed to gain traction. Unprecedented numbers of migrants are heading for the U.S., data from across Latin America show, and simply too many people want to move here for the new legal paths to be able to accommodate them all.

The resulting crush at the border has been so intense that the U.S. government doesn’t have the resources to use its new, harsher deterrence policy against most people crossing illegally, meaning most migrants are still permitted to leave the border with an immigration court date years into the future.

“The U.S. is not set up to handle the numbers of people arriving," said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank that studies global migration. “They are trying to do multiple things at once, but the resources are stretched to a breaking point on all of them."

A White House spokesman said in a statement that Congress was ultimately responsible for reforming the immigration system and hadn’t done so. “As a result, the administration is using the tools it has available to secure the border and build a safe, orderly and humane immigration system," he said.

Surge in migrant families

The most pressing concern for the government is the surge of migrant families crossing into the U.S. to seek asylum. A record number of migrants crossing as part of a family were arrested at the border in August, according to government officials familiar with the data. Previous administrations have also struggled with how to deter families from attempting to cross the border illegally

During the pandemic, many migrant families were subject to Title 42, which meant they could be quickly turned away at the border without any consideration of their asylum claims. As a result, arrests of migrant families dropped, while arrests of single adults—who proved more willing to try crossing repeatedly until they could enter the country undetected—skyrocketed.

Since Title 42’s expiration, the number of migrant adults crossing the border has dropped significantly, while the number of families has more than doubled.

That is likely due in part to pent-up demand: Families who wanted to migrate waited until after the policy changed to try their luck at the border.

But, analysts say, families are likely also responding to the fact that although the administration advertised harsh consequences for anyone entering illegally, it doesn’t have the capacity to administer them to families.

Biden pledged not to put migrant families in detention, and the alternative his administration created—to keep them on ankle bracelets while they undergo a new, tougher initial asylum screening—is expensive to run.

As a result, just roughly 2% of families who arrived in the first couple of months post-Title 42 were put into that program, which is supposed to result in rapid deportation if the family doesn’t meet the heightened standard. The rest are being given court dates, kicking off a yearslong legal process, and allowed to move anywhere in the U.S. in the meantime.

A DHS spokeswoman said that the rapid-deportation program for families is “one element" of the administration’s broader strategy and said that since May, when the new rules took effect, 36,000 migrants traveling together as families have been deported. Overall, 250,000 migrants have been deported or voluntarily returned to Mexico since May, she said.

A global problem

The shift in strategy has also coincided with more people around the world—from countries including India, Mauritania and Uzbekistan—all heading for the U.S. border with the hope of asking for asylum. The U.S. government doesn’t have established relationships with these countries on immigration, making it slower and more expensive to deport migrants from those countries. No country has proved more vexing than Venezuela, where an autocratic government and cratering economy have prompted 7.1 million people to leave, the largest refugee crisis in the world.

Most Venezuelans have resettled elsewhere in Latin America. But hundreds of thousands are still determined to reach the U.S., and the new legal paths aren’t nearly large enough to accommodate them.

Many Venezuelans have found it faster to cross illegally rather than waiting for an appointment at the border or a slot to fly here on a two-year work permit. And once they arrive, the U.S. can’t deport them because the two governments don’t maintain diplomatic relations.

Carrot-and-stick strategy

The administration thought it had a blueprint for the current policy. After Russia invaded Ukraine, tens of thousands of Ukrainians flew to Mexico, hoping to cross into the U.S. to stay with family or friends. After a couple of months, the government announced that Ukrainians could apply to move here on a two-year work permit and buy a plane ticket, but if they attempted to cross the border they would be rejected.

Virtually overnight, Ukrainians stopped attempting to enter the U.S. via the border. Later, when the U.S. expanded the same program to Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans, crossings by citizens of those countries fell from a combined roughly 78,000 in December to several hundred in July.

In an interview with reporters this week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas pointed to that program as evidence that the current approach is working but needs tweaks.

The government is looking to expand legal programs to target more populations currently crossing illegally, he said. And government officials have also been exploring ways to place a larger proportion of migrants, particularly families, into rapid-deportation programs, according to people familiar with their thinking. That could include restricting their movement to a government shelter or within a certain geographic area near the southern border.

Mayorkas said the administration still wants to drive down numbers. But he also said that some predictions about the end of Title 42 were much more dire than the current situation.

“Wasn’t everyone very, very concerned about 10,000, 12,000, 14,000 crossings a day?" he said. “We haven’t experienced that."

Write to Michelle Hackman at michelle.hackman@wsj.com and Tarini Parti at tarini.parti@wsj.com

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