The Biden administration is engaged in a high-wire act at the U.S.-Mexico border, trying to dismantle what it rightly regards as former president Donald Trump’s inhumane immigration policies and simultaneously to avoid signaling to desperate migrants that the doors to the United States have swung open amid a pandemic. The stance is inherently contradictory — little wonder it began springing leaks days after the new president took office.

Even as the White House issued stern admonitions that migrants should not attempt to enter the country, authorities admitted more than 1,000 unauthorized border-crossers into the country, generally to join relatives here, on criteria that have not been made clear publicly. News of those admissions has spread virally among migrants and asylum seekers, undercutting the official warnings meant to dissuade illegal entry. Meanwhile, thousands more illegal border-crossers continue to be summarily expelled under a public health emergency order issued last spring by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the same time, officials on Friday began processing and admitting registered asylum seekers — a procedure the Trump administration effectively froze — at three ports of entry in Texas and California. Priority goes to those who have waited longest to have their cases adjudicated while living in squalid, dangerous border camps in Mexico. Eligibility also depends on coronavirus testing performed in Mexico.

That’s a reasonable step. Yet even at a processing rate of 600 or more migrants daily, which officials hope to reach in the next few weeks, the numbers are relatively modest when measured against roughly 25,000 migrants with pending asylum cases who have waited at the border camps for months, many in fear of extortion, rape and exploitation. Some are taking their chances by swimming across the Rio Grande, hoping for lenient treatment if apprehended, according to reports from the border.

Partly to discourage illegal crossing, Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued interim guidance to agents in the field last week, instructing them to prioritize for deportation migrants who have entered the country since Nov. 1, in addition to terrorists, dangerous criminals, and others deemed a threat to national security or public safety. Still, the instructions — which require that senior managers sign off on lower-priority deportations — are designed to reduce overall removals, which may be at odds with the effort to discourage illegal border-crossings.

Taken as a whole, the policy amounts to an elaborate set of circles that the new administration is attempting to square. And it occurs against the backdrop of President Biden’s ambitious legislative proposal, facing long odds in the Senate, to establish a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented migrants. Any significant new surge of illegal border-crossing could kill off that bill’s slight chance of success — or even hopes for the more politically palatable parts of it, such as a path to legalization for “dreamers,” young unauthorized immigrants brought to this country as children.

Understandably, officials are trying to buy time; they say it will be another few months before the administration produces a fully formed new policy. Critically, that approach must feature orderly procedures for asylum seekers that allow them to pursue their legal claims in the United States — which the Trump administration did not — and do not trigger a massive new run on the border by migrant caravans. Amid a pandemic, robust enforcement at the border will be more important than ever.

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