In an extraordinary address to Congress laying out a blueprint for transformative social and economic reforms, President Biden again leaned in to overhauling our immigration system — and centering a path to citizenship in those efforts. Putting the weight of his presidency behind the imperative, Biden’s refrain was music to our ears: “Immigration has always been essential to America. Let’s end our exhausting war over immigration. For more than 30 years, politicians have talked about immigration reform and done nothing about it. It’s time to fix it.”
Biden’s address came just days before the May 1 launch of the We Are Home campaign’s national strategy to build support for a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants. Acknowledging the reality of Republican opposition to the broad immigration reform bill he transmitted to Congress on Day 1, the President called for swift passage of those issues “we all agree on”: creating a path to citizenship for Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status recipients, and farmworkers. As we shared previously, bills advancing those critical objectives passed the House in March. All eyes are now on the Senate and the weeks to come will be critical in building momentum. Learn more about the campaign and how you can get involved here.
Opponents of reform have leveraged the administration’s early challenges managing the influx of children and families at the border to deploy a talking point as shallow as it is old: “we must secure the border first.” For two decades, broadly popular reform efforts have been stymied by this deceivingly simple, and patently false, choice; rather than embrace solutions — including those that would actually enhance border management — anti-immigrant politicians have consistently blocked progress in favor of the status quo. And they do so in the face of America’s strong and growing hunger for action.
With enhanced focus on the complexity of the challenges and the seriousness of the administration’s efforts to address them, the quality of border reporting this month finally moved past the reductive ‘crisis vel non’ frame that opponents of reform require to sustain their talking point. Here’s your monthly recap of where things stand.
In mid-March, Secretary Mayorkas soberly assessed the rising number of border crossings and said that the U.S. was on pace to see the largest number of border crossings in two decades. March did indeed mark the highest single-month total of people apprehended at the border since 2006, and the administration clearly struggled to keep pace. This month, however, the numbers of daily encounters dropped significantly — an abrupt departure from projections that the numbers would hold steady or rise. That dip is likely attributable to increased military presence in Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala who are turning away Central American asylum seekers before they reach the United States, as part of an agreement with the Biden Administration. The heavy March influx was also likely the product of pent-up demand by large numbers of people who had been prevented from leaving while the pandemic shuttered national borders.
During March’s record number of border encounters, the Biden Administration raced to stand up a dozen temporary shelters to ensure that unaccompanied children could be swiftly moved out of Border Patrol facilities that are not appropriate for kids. And these efforts to accelerate the transfer of children to Department of Health and Human Services custody have paid off: the numbers of kids in CBP custody have dropped by 82% in a month.
These emergency facilities serve an important intermediary step, but they are unsustainable and unfit to hold children beyond a few days. Health and Human Services is spending at least $60 million a week to house migrant children; the average daily cost of housing a child in emergency temporary shelters is roughly $775 — more than double the cost in permanent facilities. Unaccompanied children still spend an average of 31 days in government care before being released to a sponsor. That is far too long, and the administration is working hard to bring the processing times down while taking the necessary precautions to ensure proper vetting of the sponsors.
This massive build-up in emergency capacity was the inevitable consequence of decades of neglect. We have repeatedly refused to develop a flexible, realistic system for managing regional migration that can respond to ebbs and flows. And we consciously ignore the systemic corruption, poverty, political instability, and violence in neighboring countries — until the people suffering under the weight of it reach our borders.
Root Causes of Migration
This “crisis” cycle will continue until we adopt a more comprehensive, regional approach to migration that takes into consideration push and pull factors and creates more robust legal channels through which people can gain access to the United States.
Vice President Kamala Harris has been tasked with addressing the migration push factors in the Northern Triangle, which, in addition to the root causes of violence and failed governance, now include acute economic devastation from the pandemic and lasting damage from twin hurricanes that hit in late 2020. To address these complex, deeply embedded dynamics will require creative thinking, strategic investments beyond traditional development aid, and policy solutions that involve all the countries in the region.
Harris has the opportunity and ability to makes real, tangible progress on an issue that has stumped politicians for decades. It will be an uphill battle, but not a futile one. The only way forward is to see our immigration policy and regional foreign policy as two sides of the same coin: as we generate hope in the region so that people can choose to stay in their home countries, we must simultaneously build the legal channels to enable the safe, orderly migration of those who cannot.
This effort is in its infancy, but we are heartened by the whole of government approach that has been adopted, the talented leaders working for the VP, and the increasingly visible commitment of civil society to play a constructive role. The Biden Administration recently sanctioned two high-profile Guatemalan politicians over allegations of corruption; Harris announced the U.S. will send $310 million to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala “for humanitarian relief and to address food insecurity”; and the United States expects to export surplus vaccines to the region.
On April 16, the Biden Administration announced it would maintain the annual refugee cap of 15,000 — a historic low set by the Trump Administration. This stark departure from his February promise to raise that number to 62,500 was an apparent reaction to the influx of migrant children at the border, which had left the administration with limited capacity to focus on other components of the immigration system. However, in response to swift and aggressive backlash to that broken promise (and unsettling praise from the likes of Stephen Miller), the Biden Administration walked back the announcement later the same day. A new cap will be announced by May 15.
During the Biden Administration’s climate summit on April 22 & 23, Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence, underscored that climate must be “at the center” of US foreign policy. Increased migration is among the most obvious consequences of rising emissions and the federal government appears ready to tackle the issue. Earlier this year, President Biden tasked National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan with leading a report on how to best identify and resettle climate migrants; the report and accompanying policy recommendations are due in August.
That same day, a dozen mayors from cities across the country — including Los Angeles, New York, and San Diego — sent the president a letter asking to be included in the discussion about how to best accommodate climate-displaced people. They argue that localities on the frontlines of receiving migrants should be consulted as the government deliberates how to design policies that both lower emissions and create more flexible migration channels.
We have an extraordinary opportunity to upend conventional wisdom about immigration policy and politics. Creating opportunities for those who are committed and contributing to this country to earn citizenship is the first step. Reimagining our hemispheric leadership responsibilities and building a new migration paradigm is a second critical step, one that will take time but can no longer wait. And confidently striding toward the future by solving problems and elevating our national ideals will, in the end, prove to be political gold.