In Depth

How can Joe Biden solve the US-Mexican border problem?

President angers Republicans by ditching Trump-era migrant cap

Joe Biden has U-turned on his decision to stick with a Donald Trump-era annual cap on refugees admitted to the US, after facing a backlash from angry Democrats.

Announcing that the number of refugees allowed to enter the country each year will increase from 15,000 to 62,500, the president argued that the “historically low number” set by his predecessor “did not reflect America’s values”.

Biden also pledged to seek to raise the figure further to 125,000 - fuelling accusations from Republicans that the Democrat leader is “caving to the demands of liberal activists”, The Washington Post reports.

Border surge

Biden’s first months in the White House have been marked by a number of domestic successes, ranging from a speedy vaccine rollout to an increase in spending of around 15% of gross domestic product that pundits predict will help stimulate 7% US economic growth this year.

But Biden has had less success so far in tackling the long-running problem posed by US-Mexico border, where a major migrant surge - prompted in part by his promise of a more humane migration policy - is fuelling a humanitarian and political crisis.

Official figures released by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) show that between October and February, the agency had 400,000 encounters with illegal migrants along the border - the highest number at that time of year since 2006. 

And CBS News reported in late March that the US government was housing “approximately 15,500 unaccompanied migrant minors, including 5,000 teenagers and children stranded in border patrol facilities not designed for long-term custody”.

With congressional elections scheduled to take place next year, Biden’s immigration policy is likely to become a hot-button issue. As The Telegraph notes, he “campaigned on promises to break from his predecessor's hard-line immigration policies”.

Repeating that pledge in February, Biden “promised to turn the page” on Trump’s “anti-immigrant policies”. But after that initial announcement, the president and his aides “went quiet in public for two months as he refused to officially sign-off on a new policy”, The Washington Post says.

The radio silence alarmed “human rights advocates and fellow Democrats”, the paper adds, while the border surge “prompted strong criticism from both Democratic and Republican elected officials”.

Joint polling by the paper and ABC News shows that US voters are concerned about Biden’s handling of the situation. However, this week’s announcement that the cap of refugees will be raised was “quickly welcomed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee”, which is controlled by the Democrats.

Committee chair Senator Bob Menendez tweeted that he “welcomes the Biden administration’s announcement that it will increase the number of refugees allowed to be resettled in the United States”, adding: “This is an important step in continuing our proud, bipartisan tradition of providing refugees protection through resettlement.”

However, Republican Senator Tom Cotton immediately “made clear that Republicans intended to seize on Biden’s immigration agenda to galvanise the party’s base” ahead of next year’s midterm vote, The New York Times says.

“Increasing the refugee admissions cap will put American jobs and safety at risk,” Cotton tweeted. “The Biden administration should be focused on getting Americans back to work.”

Perennial problem

Having served as a senator for over half a century, Biden is all too aware of the perennial challenges caused by his country’s porous southern border with Mexico.

In a statement released on Monday announcing the new refugee admissions cap, Biden said that it was “important to take this action today to remove any lingering doubt in the minds of refugees around the world who have suffered so much, and who are anxiously waiting for their new lives to begin”.

“We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years. It will take some time, but that work is already under way,” he added.

A group of migrants cross the Rio Bravo from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico into El Paso

A group of migrants cross the Rio Bravo from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico into El Paso

Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty Images

Having pledged to resign Trump’s border policy to the annals of history, Biden’s “flip-flopping” over exact figures came amid “concern over bad optics” following the migrant surge, but provoked “the ire of refugee advocates and some Democratic lawmakers”, Reuters reports.

Progressive Democrats to the left of his party are calling for policies that are “out of step with wider American opinion” and “championing impractical demands” such as an end to all deportations, The Economist says. But Biden can only deliver on his legislative agenda if he “avoids a confrontation with progressives, whose support he needs”, the paper adds.

On the other hand, losing control of Congress next year would also leave him in a legislative bind. The president’s critics have “seized on the issue as a political weapon”, using it to accuse Biden of “making poor policy choices that opened the floodgates to illegal immigration during a pandemic”, the NYT reports.

The White House held a call with refugee organisations on Monday in an effort to “repair frayed relations” amid ongoing anger over the administration’s previous silence, The Washington Post adds.

But as an experienced political operator, Biden will be conscious that he cannot afford to fray relations too far with the voters who can help him maintain control of Congress in next year’s all-important election. 

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