Faced with a continuing surge of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.’s southern border, the Biden administration has announced plans to speed up the way such cases are handled. The proposals are fine, as far as they go — but they don’t go nearly far enough. To stop things at the border from getting any worse, the administration and Congress need to take a comprehensive view of the problem, and to remind themselves of two crucial points.

First, the U.S. needs many more immigrants. Without them, it cannot grow and prosper as it should. Second, those immigrants should enter the country lawfully. A system that tolerates lawlessness at the border cannot command the confidence of law-abiding citizens. Any outcome that sidelines either of these principles is certain to fail.   

For the current fiscal year, U.S. border officials have reported more than 1.3 million “encounters” with migrants attempting to enter the U.S. from Mexico. The numbers have kept increasing month over month. In July, 212,672 crossings were recorded — the highest monthly total in 21 years. The number of families and unaccompanied minors arriving at the border is soaring. Under President Joe Biden, the U.S. resumed letting some of them stay and apply for asylum. Last week, the Supreme Court ordered the administration to at least provisionally continue the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which requires asylum seekers to stay outside the U.S. while their claims are processed.

The administration is right to help vulnerable people seeking safety, but the deluge of arrivals has overwhelmed the immigration court system. There’s already a backlog of 1.3 million cases, and many asylum claims languish for years. This creates perverse incentives for people without legitimate claims to try to enter anyway, knowing they’ll be permitted to stay while their cases are waiting to be processed, allowing some of them to avoid the authorities and disappear.

The administration’s new measures aim to streamline the system. Asylum officers from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) normally conduct initial “credible fear” screenings of immigrants at the border. They’d be given greater authority and additional resources to expedite the process, easing burdens on immigration courts and detention facilities, and helping to clear the backlog. By itself, this wouldn’t eliminate the problem of applicants disappearing before their cases can be heard, but it would reduce it, by cutting the delays that create the loophole. The plan calls for some 2,000 new asylum officers and staff. The administration has asked for some $438 million to cover the cost. Congress should grant the request.

Even so, this would be no more than a patch. Ideally, asylum claims should be processed away from the border. But doing this effectively, and with due regard for the safety of applicants, will be expensive. It requires refugee processing centers in Mexico and Central America, so that applicants can be vetted before they try to cross into the U.S. This demands substantial additional resources, both to staff the centers adequately and to help Mexico’s government develop the capacity to protect and resettle more migrants.

Above all, broader immigration policy needs to be understood as part of the problem. Many of the people seeking admission at the border are would-be economic migrants, not genuine asylum seekers. It would serve U.S. interests to welcome more such migrants through new channels, such as expanded access to non-immigrant work visas, and by broadening eligibility under existing work-related schemes. Aside from being valuable in its own right, this would deflect many would-be economic migrants from regarding the asylum process as the surest way of getting into the U.S.

The president might be looking for ways to restore his standing as a man who can unite the country and do business with both sides in Congress. Reforms of this kind could fit the bill. It helps that the Republican Party is learning that immigrants are by no means certain to form a solid liberal voting bloc. A pro-immigrant policy based on supporting growth, enterprise, and upholding the rule of law could command bipartisan support.

A suitably ambitious president would be willing to take this on. Regardless of whether Biden rises to the challenge, nothing less will fix the country’s recurring border crises.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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