The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP’s biggest attack on Biden may be about to hit a snag

(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

It’s impossible to overstate how big a bet Republicans and right-wing media have placed on attacking President Biden over the influx of migrants at the border.

The term “Biden’s Border Crisis” is ubiquitous in GOP Twitter feeds. Republicans are vowing that this “crisis” will win the midterms for them. Right-wing media personalities are gushing with certainty that it will break the Biden presidency.

So what happens if the Biden administration manages to get the situation more under control — not to the point of solving the problem, which is immense and will bedevil us for years, but rather to a point where the public perceives it to be getting managed within reasonable parameters, given how challenging it is?

Some new numbers on the border, which administration officials offered on a conference call with reporters, suggest this possibility. There’s also some bad news: Officials still were cagey on when they’ll be lifting certain Trump policies that remain in place.

But several metrics announced by officials do suggest real managerial improvement.

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First, the total number of children in Border Patrol custody has dropped from a high of 5,500 at the end of March to around 600 to 750 now, depending on the day.

Second, the amount of time spent by kids and teens on Border Patrol custody has dropped to an average of approximately 24 hours.

That’s an improvement: By law, they’re supposed to be moved to Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities (where they’re kept before getting transferred to guardians in the United States) within 72 hours. Early on during the influx, many kids were being held longer than that, because ORR capacity was overwhelmed. That’s not happening now.

Third, kids are being moved from ORR facilities to guardians faster, officials announced. Before, kids were being discharged by ORR at a rate of around 1,400 per week. Now, as of last week, it’s more than 3,000.

Fourth, the amount of time kids are kept at ORR facilities before being united with a sponsor has dropped. Officials said the average amount of time they spent with ORR used to be 42 days. Now, it’s 30 days.

Those are meaningful improvements, says Wendy Young, the head of Kids in Need of Defense and an advocate on these issues for decades.

“Bottom line, they’re making progress,” Young told me. “Seeing those numbers drop is encouraging.”

But Young pointed to a problem. This is getting managed now, in part, because many kids are getting transferred to ORR facilities that are temporary, that is, opened up recently and rapidly to deal with the crush of arriving kids. Those have less oversight and advocates are wary about kids staying at them.

One potential positive is that, if kids continue getting transferred out of ORR custody faster, it could make the administration less reliant on those temporary facilities. Young said efforts must be redoubled to make that happen.

But Young also noted that these signs of improvement offer cause for optimism. “We may actually reach a point where we can manage the challenges,” Young told me.

There’s some serious cautionary news here, however.

First, officials reiterated that they will continue expelling asylum-seeking adults and families under the coronavirus-related Title 42 health ban (kids are being allowed in). This measure, which is resulting in large expulsions without due process, is only designed for protecting public health, not managing immigration flows, and it’s obviously being used for the latter.

And officials indefensibly refused to offer a general time frame for when this might be lifted.

Second, precisely because migrant influxes tend to be cyclical, even if officials do manage the problem in the short term, it will come back.

Which leads to the third cautionary point: Solving the larger problem will be incredibly hard. Addressing root causes of these migrations will require addressing a range of terrible economic, political, civil and environmental problems in the origin countries.

As Andrew Selee and Ariel G. Ruiz Soto explain, these border “crises” are really symptomatic of a “much larger crisis rooted in long-standing problems in Central America,” which is exactly what makes them “recurrent.”

As they bluntly put it, “no past U.S. policies” have “addressed these underlying causes effectively enough to stop this cycle.” Vice President Harris is leading a new effort, but it will be seriously challenging.

Making this worse, broader solutions at home will be elusive. Precisely because these problems are cyclical and intractable, we should create new paths to make it easier for these people to migrate legally. Meanwhile, we also need to overhaul the system for processing asylum seekers to speed up the process.

Both will be hard to impossible as long as congressional Republicans don’t want to participate in constructive problem solving.

Politically speaking, GOP attacks on this issue will hit a serious snag if the Biden administration continues getting the problem in hand in the short term. But the ultimate perversity is that Republicans won’t join in solving the larger problem precisely because they’ll be betting on profiting politically from the cyclical aspect of it returning during the midterm elections next year.

Read more:

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The Post’s View: Will Biden muster the courage of his convictions on refugee policy?

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Greg Sargent: Why Kamala Harris’s new immigration assignment could be a big deal

Fareed Zakaria: Biden’s generous immigration policies could turn out to backfire