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Opinion At Biden’s presser, bad questions adopt a right-wing frame

President Biden on March 25 answered questions on his handling of immigration, the filibuster and foreign policy at his first news conference as president. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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At Joe Biden’s first news conference as president, the dominant topic was immigration. That’s because young migrants overwhelming our facilities are all over the news these days.

Unfortunately, some lines of questioning were dominated by a tacit acceptance of Republican and right-wing readings of the current migrant influx and the longer-term challenges the issue poses. That’s objectionable on its own, but treating the issue this way also fails to advance the cause of genuinely holding Biden accountable on it.

One reporter told the story of Josef, a boy from Honduras who entered the United States after a long trek. The reporter then asked:

His mother says that she sent her son to this country because she believes that you are not deporting unaccompanied minors like her son. That’s why she sent him alone … is your messaging and saying that these children are and will be allowed to stay in this country … encouraging families like Josef’s to come?

The unstated premise of this is that the mere fact that Josef tried to enter the United States is inherently a negative development, one caused by Biden’s decision to allow in children and teens (adults and families are still mostly excluded under a public health rule) to apply for asylum. But why should anyone presume that an inherent negative?

One answer might be that the facilities holding migrant kids are overflowing, creating terrible conditions. That’s true, but that still doesn’t support the question’s premise, because the alternative to allowing kids in is to not allow them in.

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In my view, that alternative is worse, even if letting them in is straining our facilities. The question advances the opposite position, that not allowing them in is better. One can hold that position if one wants, but it is not an objective truth, and the reporter’s question presents it as such.

Biden answered by declaring the alternative of not allowing them in at all unacceptable. “I’m not going to do it,” Biden said.

The question also implied that allowing children in functions as a “pull factor” that encourages people to send unaccompanied minors to cross the border alone. But this, too, is objectionable: Those who do this are making the horrific choice that sending kids alone in hopes of getting asylum — which in 80 percent of cases reunites them with a parent or relative already here — beats the alternative.

If those people are making that brutally hard choice, it means allowing them in created a possibility for the child that wasn’t there before. The implication that this is bad by definition isn’t an objective truth, either.

Another reporter asked Biden about his decision to rescind the former president’s policies, including Remain in Mexico (which forced migrants to wait there for asylum hearings, creating a humanitarian crisis of its own):

You bear responsibility for everything that’s happening at the border now. … You decided to roll back some of those policies. Did you move too quickly?

This question advances an unstated judgment: What’s bad about the current situation is that a lot of people are trying to enter the country. But why is that inherently bad?

The fundamental dispute is over whether to resume allowing people to try for asylum and wait for hearings here, or to stick to former president Donald Trump’s policies, which forced them outside the country in various ways with the express goal of using fear of violence, degrading conditions and human rights abuses to deter them from ever applying at all.

There are all kinds of reasons people make the trek, and current numbers don’t necessarily show that Biden’s changes are the reason. But even if one of many reasons is that people now know they’ll eventually be able to exercise their legal right to apply for asylum without facing horrors of deterrence, isn’t that good? Why are reporters asking questions presuming that to be bad?

Of course, the spikes are creating a host of terrible logistical challenges. But the right way to hold Biden accountable is to ask whether he’s meeting those challenges quickly enough, not to treat it as inherently bad that he decided to take them on.

A few questions did probe this point. Reporters rightly noted that the border facilities are still clogged, and Biden vowed that his administration would solve that with additional space.

But suggesting that Biden should be on the defensive for moving too quickly treats it as given that continuing to deter people from applying or trying to enter at all — accomplished by Biden’s predecessor via an appalling set of alternatives — was an inherently good baseline against which to judge the current situation.

After all, no reporter asked whether Biden is unwinding previous policies too slowly. What’s ironic is that this line of questioning would constitute another actual way to hold Biden accountable — that is, to the goal that he himself has set for himself and the country.

No one asked why Biden hasn’t lifted the public health ban for adults and most families, which seems unjustifiable. No one asked what the time frame is on that. No one asked why he hasn’t yet honored his promise to raise the cap on refugees. Why didn’t anyone ask those questions?

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