Biden's immigration messaging is fine — the problem is his policies don't back up his 'don't come' message

  • Biden says would-be migrants should stay where they are. His DHS chief says ‘the border is closed.’
  • But he has opened the border — not to all, but to some migrants, including unaccompanied minors.
  • Of course his actions are encouraging more people to try to come to the U.S.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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At his first press conference as president, Joe Biden rejected claims that the surge in unaccompanied minors and families from Central America seeking to enter the US at the Mexican border was related to him.

“I’d like to think it’s because I’m a nice guy, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s because of what’s happened every year.”

Biden and his defenders are right to note that the migrant surge is driven by multiple factors, many of them out of the Biden administration’s control. But they’re wrong to claim it’s unrelated to him and his actions. Despite Biden’s stated message that migrants should not come to the US if they’re not authorized to enter, his policy actions have created reason for people — especially families and unaccompanied minors — to try to enter the US now, and they are doing so in elevated numbers.

What is happening now is not routine

Migrant flows rise and fall, and while the overall level right now is elevated, it may not prove much more elevated than during the last spike in 2019. But who is arriving is abnormal. The number of unaccompanied minors processed by US officials at the border is expected to set a record this month. Family arrivals are also elevated and rising.

Migrants and their families tell reporters they are coming now because they believe the Biden Administration is more likely to admit them to the US than the Trump Administration was. And they have good reason to believe that: Biden has changed policies at the border to generally admit arriving unaccompanied minors to the US, pending hearings far in the future.

Despite what Biden said last week, a majority of families are also now being admitted, with the administration saying Mexico is no longer willing to take them back. Why wouldn’t those facts encourage migration?

As the Washington Post’s coverage makes clear, migrant behavior is responsive to incentives in the ways you would expect. 

“While the Biden administration is expelling some families, it is allowing nearly all unaccompanied minors to stay, so some parents are choosing to send their sons and daughters across the border alone,” Nick Miroff and Maria Sachetti wrote this week. “As more families are allowed to stay, more parents are expected to arrive with their children, instead of splitting up.”

What exactly are we doing here?

Biden’s inability to lay out a message on migration from Central America that aligns with his policy actions stems from a broader unwillingness in the Democratic Party to commit to a consistent view on who should be able to move to the US and why.

If you live in a place that is impoverished or violent, and you would be able to build a better life in the US, should you be able to come here? The answer, under US immigration law, is generally no. A right to asylum is based on persecution based on your membership in a particular group, not generally poor conditions in the place where you live.

Biden’s stated position aligns with this broader policy, even in extremely sympathetic cases.

At the press conference, Cecilia Vega of ABC News asked Biden about a nine-year-old boy she met who had traveled unaccompanied to the border. Vega telephoned the boy’s mother in Honduras, who told her “that she sent her son to this country because she believes that you are not deporting unaccompanied minors like her son.”

Biden remarked on the grim situation a family making this choice must be facing: “What a desperate act to have to take. The circumstances must be horrible.” Then Vega asked what should ultimately become of a boy like this — should he be allowed to live in the US? Biden suggested that, ultimately, the boy should be involuntarily removed from the US: “In this young man’s case, he has a mom. There’s an overwhelming reason why he’d be put in a plane and flown back to his mom.”

But where Biden’s message falls away from his policy is that his administration will not put the child on a plane yet. Instead, the boy should be released into the US, put into extensive legal proceedings, and possibly removed at a later date.

This is the administration’s position despite a court ruling allowing it to continue promptly removing such minors — not to “starve to death and stay on the other side” of the Mexican border, as Biden suggested the alternative would be at his press conference (Mexico will not accept the return of unaccompanied non-Mexican children) but flown to their home countries, as was generally the practice in the later years of the Trump administration, and as Biden apparently thinks should ultimately happen in these cases, but not right away.

This shift gives migrants good reason to believe that unaccompanied children who seek to enter the US will be allowed in the country, with only the possibility of later removal. So while Biden urges potential migrants to stay where they are, his policies are giving some of them good reason to try traveling to the US now.

An immigration policy entails deciding who can immigrate

Conservatives tend to refer to Biden’s policy as “open borders,” but that is incorrect. The border is always open to some people and closed to others. Biden has made the border more open, but it’s still heavily restricted. Unaccompanied adults are being sent back to Mexico, as are a substantial (and sometimes seemingly arbitrarily chosen) fraction of family groups. Even unaccompanied minors who enter the US are subject to the eventual threat of removal if they cannot make valid claims for asylum.

The problem isn’t that Biden has thrown the border open but that he’s increased its openness in ways that go against his stated policy intentions. He says he wants people in Central America who don’t qualify for admission to the US to stay where they are. But he’s also making it easier, at the margin, for them to get in.

Biden seeks to square this circle by talking about efforts to improve living conditions in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

I am all for US efforts to promote security and economic development in central America. President Trump’s resistance to such aid undermined his stated intention of reducing migration flows to the US. For all the Trump-era focus on illegal immigration, it’s far down from levels observed in the 1990s, in significant part due to successful economic development in Mexico. 

But I am also clear-eyed about our ability to alter circumstances in other countries and thereby alter people’s desire to migrate to the US. Even if conditions in foreign countries improve, and even if the US assists with that improvement, easing entry to the US will tend to increase demand to enter the US.

A porous border makes it harder to sell immigration reform

One of the core trades of immigration reform is supposed to be that we regularize millions of people who have been living in the US without authorization, and in exchange we rigorously enforce immigration law so we don’t end up with millions more unauthorized immigrants living here a few years down the road.

But the current tenor of the conversation around migration from Central America — and particularly the Biden administration’s helpless talking points about its ability to stop people from entering the US without authorization unless we fundamentally change what life is like in other countries — undermines the policy case for comprehensive immigration reform. 

I don’t find it surprising that Morning Consult has found a sharp drop in support from January to March for a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, as migrant flows rose and the situation got more coverage. I’m not saying that change in sentiment is blocking a reform that could otherwise pass soon — Republican demands that immigration reforms wait until the border is “secure” often set no real endpoint where that test would be met — but in the long run, a demonstrated inability to control who enters the country undermines the core messaging that is needed to sell comprehensive immigration reform.

Aside from economic and security partnerships, the other key factor the Biden administration cites as a strategy to slow the flow of migrants is to get Mexico to agree to do more — such as stopping migrants from passing through Mexico, and agreeing to take back more family groups. This is one objective of vaccine diplomacy, in which we are sending millions of COVID vaccine doses to Mexico.

This policy relies on the fact that Americans are more concerned about migrants’ conditions when they are in the US than when they are not, even though it’s not clear why that’s an important moral distinction. It is an effective continuation of Trump-era policies. And if migrant flows do keep rising sharply at the Mexican border like the administration expects, political pressure to keep the migrants out of the country will rise.

This is an option. But it doesn’t seem like one that serves the long-term objectives of anyone with a coherent view on US immigration policy.

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