Within hours of being inaugurated, President Biden began to roll back Donald Trump’s most egregious immigration policies — including the “Muslim Ban,” which Biden called “a stain on our national conscience.” He signed six executive actions, all geared toward a more humane and generous policy, and outlined an ambitious proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States.

The Biden administration has begun the work of reversing literally hundreds of other rules, regulations and fees put in place by Trump — all designed to make it harder for foreigners at every stage of the process, from tourists to immigrants, to enter or stay in the United States.

Unfortunately, all of these vital efforts could be undermined by decisions that are producing a new immigration crisis on the United States’ southern border.

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have tried to enter the United States to ask for asylum. The Trump administration initially used cruel tactics — including separating children from their parents and putting them in cages — but eventually arrived at a practical policy. It stopped taking in asylum seekers at the southern border, forcing them instead to wait in Mexico for their cases to be resolved, and it negotiated agreements that allowed the United States to send people back to Central America to seek asylum in a neighboring country rather than in the United States.

Now Biden has overturned those policies, and that, combined with expectations of a more generous approach to immigration, has contributed to the current surge of migrants.

Nearly 180,000 people have arrived at the southern border or tried to cross illegally in 2021, more than double as many as in the first two months of 2020. These numbers will increase as it gets warmer. Officials at the border are already overwhelmed. There has been a particularly large surge of unaccompanied children, probably the result of a Biden decision to create an exception for them to a Trump rule barring migrants on health grounds. Federal authorities are scrambling to find places to house the 3,500 children still languishing at Border Patrol stations and are even looking at an airfield and an army base.

The truth is the asylum system is out of control. The concept of asylum dates to the years after World War II, when the United States created a separate path to enter the country for those who feared religious, ethnic or political persecution — a noble idea born in the shadow of the United States’ refusal to take in Jews in the 1930s. It was used sparingly for decades, mostly applying to cases of extreme discrimination. But the vast majority of people entering the southern border are really traditional migrants, fleeing poverty and violence. This is a sad situation, but it does not justify giving them special consideration above others around the world who seek to come to the United States for similar reasons — but patiently go through the normal process.

Trump already smells blood. Having been elected in 2016 in some large measure because of fears about illegal immigration, he is already attacking Biden on that issue. It dominated his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, in which he accused Biden of triggering “a massive flood of illegal immigration into our country the likes of which we have never seen before.” Last week, he issued another statement, claiming many of these people were criminals and covid carriers.

The tragedy is that this border crisis — and Trump’s demagoguery around it — could hinder Biden’s efforts to achieve comprehensive reform of the whole system. Asylum seekers make up a small minority of immigrants. But there is a much larger group that includes those who have skills the United States needs as well as those entering to reunite with their families. Thanks to Trump’s policies, these immigrants and would-be immigrants now face a more hostile environment than at any point since the United States ended quotas in 1965.

You can see it in the numbers. With pandemic restrictions on top of everything else, immigration to the United States has plunged to levels not seen in four decades. Some of the world’s best and brightest are choosing to go to more hospitable countries, from Canada to Australia. Census data show that without immigration, the United States faces a dire demographic future. It would mean fewer people and especially fewer young people, which would mean less growth, dynamism and opportunity for everyone. This is the real immigration crisis, not the one at the southern border.

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