Opinion

Biden’s Visit to the Border Is Bound to Be Awkward

Republicans have been hounding President Biden for more than a year to travel to the southern border and see the situation there with his own eyes. “I guess I should go down,” he conceded in a town hall meeting with CNN in October 2021, but he explained that he had been too busy to make the trip. Last month, when Mr. Biden went to tour the site for a computer chip manufacturing plant in Arizona but not the southern border, Fox News blasted him.

On Sunday, Mr. Biden will finally give the southern border its due. His planned trip to El Paso, a city that has received so many migrants that it had to turn its convention center into a homeless shelter, is the first of his presidency to a border community and apparently the first since he was on the campaign trail in 2008.

It is bound to be awkward.

Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas has done his best to embarrass the administration for its immigration policies by sending busloads of migrants to New York and Washington, including a few that dropped migrants near Vice President Harris’s home. If Mr. Biden wouldn’t come to the border to see the crisis firsthand, Republicans were going to send the border crisis to him.

White House officials, meanwhile, took considerable pains to avoid using the word “crisis” at all.

I get it. It doesn’t make sense to spotlight a problem until you have a solution, and solutions on the border don’t come easy. But Mr. Biden is arriving with a plan. It involves extending a pathway of legal migration made available to some Venezuelans to people from Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba. Under the new program, they will be allowed to apply for “parole,” which would permit them to work in the United States for two years if they can pass a background check and have friends or relatives here who are willing to sponsor them.

At the same time, countless migrants from those countries will no longer be able to wait on U.S. soil for an asylum claim to make its way through a court. Instead, they will have to download an app, CBP One, on their smartphones, to book an appointment with a U.S. official who can interview them at a port of entry.

“CBP One — O-N-E,” as Mr. Biden helpfully spelled it out in remarks to reporters at the White House on Thursday when he unveiled the program.

Those who fail to use the app to make an appointment will be expelled back to Mexico under an arrangement that Mexican authorities have agreed to.

After his stop in El Paso, Mr. Biden will travel to Mexico City for meetings with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada.

The idea is to expand legal, safe, orderly pathways and discourage people from trekking across the border. In a perfect world, the app would radically improve the chaos at the border, by allowing people to apply for an asylum interview from their homes. Ideally, it would cut out the dangerous middlemen who charge a small fortune to smuggle people through the jungle so they can reach the border and apply for asylum.

It could also modernize the way the U.S. government keeps track of asylum cases and of the migrants themselves, making the whole process more smooth. Some immigrants’ rights groups, including the American Immigration Council, have raised valid questions about how the government will use the GPS coordinates and biometric data collected by the app.

But CBP One has the potential to be transformative, in a good way. Hundreds of people die every year making the dangerous journey to the United States. Imagine if they could get an appointment to file an asylum claim without ever having to put themselves in harm’s way.

For those who have already walked through jungles to reach the border, news of the app is likely to be a heartbreak. Until recently, Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans stood a good chance of gaining admittance to the United States; it is difficult to deport them because of their countries’ frosty relations with the United States. But under Mr. Biden’s new plan, the Mexican government will accept up to 30,000 people from these three countries and Haiti per month, effectively crushing their hopes of ever reaching America.

This aspect of the new program has outraged human rights activists, leading some to compare Mr. Biden to the former guy. But the comparison isn’t fair. Overall, the Biden administration did a decent job of reversing the cruelty-is-the-point Trump-era policies that separated parents from their small children, made undocumented workers live in constant fear of deportation and slashed refugee admissions.

However, Mr. Biden’s efforts to restore the image of America as a big-hearted and welcoming country come with a downside. Migrants in Mexico had high hopes when Mr. Biden took office that he would immediately change policies to let them in. Since then, more than a million asylum-seekers have been allowed into the United States with notices to appear in court for cases that most likely won’t be called up for years.

As some American schools and homeless shelters are inundated with migrants, public opinion seems to be shifting even further in favor of stronger restrictions at the border. The percentage of people who say that increasing security along the U.S.-Mexico border to reduce illegal crossings “should be an important goal” has risen to 73 percent from 68 percent three years ago, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. The increase is largely driven by Democrats (59 percent today vs. 49 percent then).

Now Mr. Biden is scrambling to try to reduce the numbers of migrants who cross the border. “He knows how border issues have crippled presidencies,” Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told me. “He doesn’t want to be stamped with this brand of an unmanageable border.”

The administration rolled out the parole program for Venezuelans in October, and the number of Venezuelans who were apprehended at the border plummeted from about 1,100 per day to fewer than 250 per day. The expanded program could have a similar effect for Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans, who made up a sizable number of migrants last year. There were hundreds of thousands of encounters with Venezuelans, Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans at the border in 2022.

The program doesn’t solve the structural problems with the U.S. immigration system, including enormous backlogs in asylum cases and no clear path to citizenship for children who were brought into the country by their parents. Parole granted under Mr. Biden’s plan rests on shaky legal ground, some argue, and expires after two years; after that, the ranks of people living in the United States with a precarious legal status and no path to citizenship will continue to grow.

Like so much else about our immigration policy, this program is a creation of the executive branch cobbled together by whatever power it can muster. What the country really needs is comprehensive immigration reform, passed by Congress. If the spectacle and speeches in the House in the last week are any indication of what is to come, I won’t hold my breath. Until Congress gets itself together to govern, schemes like the parole program are the only game in town.

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