I recently asked “What Is ‘Border Czar’ Kamala Harris Doing on the Border Crisis?” My answer was “not much” as the country faces an unprecedented crisis at the Southwest Border. Nor has much changed in the interim, but maybe the Biden administration likes it that way.
Two points to begin.
First, the White House has been somewhat vague about Harris’s responsibilities in this role, which President Biden assigned the vice president on March 24. As Newsweek has explained, the administration “has struggled to make clear which problems Harris would tackle and which are outside of her domain.” Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, has not done much to clarify things.
Psaki has “shut down ideas that the vice president is in charge of the current migrant situation,” indicating instead that Harris “is only focused on the root causes.” The administration has identified those “root causes” as “[p]overty, high levels of violence, and corruption” in Central America and Mexico, so addressing those issues is likely Harris’s job.
As I have noted previously, there is another (sort-of) “border czar”, former Ambassador Roberta Jacobson. But Jacobson is out at the end of the month, no successor to her has been named, and it has never really been clear what all her job entailed.
Second, as bad as the situation at the border has become, the White House has been reluctant to deem it a “crisis”. The weekend before last, the president slipped up and used the term, only to have the White House clean it up and explain that Biden "was referring to the crisis in Central America — the dire circumstances so many are fleeing from” and not the government’s response.
I will return to that point, below.
Even if you limit Harris’s duties to simply addressing institutional factors south of the border, however, it does not appear that she has done much in her new role. Logically, even if she were just the White House’s legate to the countries from which most illegal migrants hail (Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), she would start by taking a look at conditions at the border itself. She hasn’t thus far.
On the diplomatic front, in my April 8 post, I noted that the vice president had a phone call with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on March 30, but the read-out of that call shows that it was mostly perfunctory and duplicative of earlier efforts.
Nor was Harris’s April 7 call with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador any more substantive. There were a lot of reaffirmations, and thanks, and agreements to continue to work together, but nothing that really looks like a plan, or even an outline of a plan (or outline of an outline).
Those two calls are the sum total of the vice president’s efforts over more than a month to stem the tide of migrants entering illegally. What gives?
Given the lack of transparency, I can only guess. My one inevitable conclusion, however, is that the Biden administration refuses to call the situation at the border a crisis because it does not view it as one.
There are certainly plenty of reasons to conclude that the border is in crisis, and in a bad way.
Border Patrol apprehended more migrants entering illegally at the Southwest border in March (168,195) than in any month in the last 20 years (since March 2001); more unaccompanied alien children (UACs, 18,663) than in any month in recorded history (back to October 2009); and more adults and children in family units (FMUs, 52,904) than in any month for which records are kept (back to October 2012) except for four months at the height of the “border emergency” in 2019.
As a consequence, according to CNN, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is responsible for sheltering most unaccompanied children under a 2008 law, is now caring for 21,000 of them — shattering its old record of UACs in its shelters by about 50 percent.
Under that 2008 law, those children are generally supposed to be sent to HHS by DHS within 72 hours, but in early April they remained in DHS custody for an average of 122 hours (more than two extra days).
And, pursuant to section 235(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), migrants in family units are supposed to be quickly removed if they do not have asylum claims (and detained until their claims are heard if they do, with judicially imposed restrictions), but the Biden administration has been releasing most adult migrants with children within 72 hours.
Even then, the administration has had to enter into a controversial $87 million contract to house families in hotels (although some of those hotels are reportedly backing out).
The administration previously stated it would expel those families, as well as single adult migrants, under Trump-era expulsion orders issued by the CDC under Title 42 of the U.S. Code in response to the pandemic. While the Mexican government has agreed to accept the adults, the government can only expel non-Mexican-national families if the Mexican government has the “capacity” to accept them.
Mexico must not have much “capacity”, because only about 17,000 of the almost 53,000 migrants in family units apprehended in March (32 percent of the total) were expelled back across the border.
The problem has gotten so bad that not only have those families not been quickly removed under section 235(b) of the INA, or expelled under Title 42, but the government has been releasing some of them without Notices to Appear (NTAs), the immigration charges that would place them into non-detained removal proceedings.
DHS’s failure to issue them NTAs will allow those aliens to remain in the United States indefinitely (if not forever), and require ICE to keep track of them (assuming it even knows they are in this country).
Simply put, the government is so overwhelmed at the border that it cannot even comply with U.S. laws. That’s the definition of a “crisis”, to me, one that would logically prompt Vice President Harris to do more than make a couple of phone calls.
All of that assumes, however, that the Biden administration believes that allowing tens of thousands of migrants to enter illegally and be released into the United States, and thereby to remain here (in most cases) forever, is a problem. My error may well be my failure to appreciate the fact that the Biden administration does not think that is a problem.
The Biden administration might like the status quo just fine. It would explain the administration’s refusal to deem the rapidly devolving situation at the Southwest border a crisis, the lack of action on Harris’s part, and the fact that Jacobson is stepping down without an apparent successor.
And that conclusion may not be as crazy as it sounds.
An April 23 Politico article explains that Republicans are gearing up to use the president’s failures at the border as a wedge issue in the mid-term congressional elections in 2022. As I explained in an April 16 post, it appears to be a winning point for the GOP.
Deep down in that Politico article, however, is the following:
In a five-page memo obtained by POLITICO, [immigration-advocacy group] Immigration Hub cited internal polling that indicates immigration could be politically helpful to Democrats if they can better explain their policies. Sixty-three percent of nationwide voters, for example, approve of Biden’s approach to the border when introduced to it while 28 percent disapprove.
I am not sure how exactly you would have to spin the situation at the border to turn it to Biden’s advantage, but any objective observer would have to agree that wide swaths of the media are sympathetic to the president and to his party, and therefore are more than willing to help.
In my last post, I explained that the “pull factors” encouraging illegal immigration (loopholes in U.S. law and policy that could be easily closed) are much stronger than the “push factors” in migrants’ home countries (like poverty, crime, and corruption) prompting them to leave.
Few if any are even talking about those pull factors, however, even on Capitol Hill. Instead, the focus has been almost exclusively aligned with the administration’s talking points. The only critical commentary in most of the media to the administration’s position has been how poorly Biden has cared for migrants once they are here.
Time will tell if the Biden administration prefers what amounts to open borders, and whether this is a winning strategy for Democrats in the mid-terms. In the interim, however, it is more than appropriate to ask what exactly the vice president is doing to address the current immigrant surge. And to highlight what she isn’t doing.