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Opinion Chaos at the border was predictable. So why wasn’t Biden prepared?

Migrants crowd a room with walls of plastic sheeting at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporary processing center in Donna, Tex. (Rep. Henry Cuellar/Via Reuters)

On his first day in office, President Biden rolled out his plan to achieve the most sweeping overhaul to U.S. immigration laws in more than a generation. He promised a more humane system that would include an eight-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million who are living in the United States illegally.

In this country, the announcement prompted understandable skepticism. How achievable would any of this be in the near term, given the closely divided Congress, the filibuster hurdle in the Senate and the many other pressing concerns facing the new administration?

But desperate people in Central America heard another message: Come now.

Tragically, the chaotic and dangerous situation at the U.S. southern border was predictable.

Why the administration was not prepared for it is likely to be one of the chief topics Thursday at Biden’s first presidential news conference. Blaming his predecessor is unlikely to get him off the hook. Apprehensions at the border were rising under Donald Trump but not as fast as they are now.

“Even though one could see it coming, I don’t think they or any of us expected how quickly, in just two or three weeks, the number escalated,” says Doris Meissner, who headed the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the 1990s and now directs the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. “We haven’t seen that before. It overtook them more quickly than they expected.”

All of this, of course, underscores how badly broken the immigration system is and the need for reform. But unless Biden moves decisively to fix a situation that his administration is squeamish about calling a crisis, it is unlikely that Americans will trust the government to be competent enough to implement more far-reaching policies.

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The surge at the U.S. border is especially sharp among unaccompanied teens and children, who under rules that Biden put in place are not subject to deportation, as they were under the Trump administration’s morally unacceptable policies.

Border officials, The Post reports, are on track to take in more than 17,000 minors this month. This unprecedented number appears to be greater than seasonal or cyclical surges in the past.

The administration has refused, improperly in my view, to allow journalists to see and document the conditions under which these minors are being held in Border Patrol facilities, many far longer than the 72 hours allowed by law. After that period, they are supposed to be transferred into the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, which in turn is supposed to put them in the care of relatives or others.

Photos of the facilities were made public this week by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.). The images, which show children crowded together and wrapped in foil-like blankets, were shockingly reminiscent of conditions during the Trump administration.

“The system is being overwhelmed right now,” Cuellar told Axios. “No ifs, no buts about it.”

Meissner says that past administrations — not only Trump’s but also Barack Obama’s — followed an approach to border security that failed to adjust to the ways migration patterns have changed over the past decade.

Until around 2013, about 90 percent of apprehensions at the border were of Mexicans, generally single young men looking for work and trying to evade the Border Patrol, Meissner explained. Since 2014, however, about three-quarters have been Central Americans, many of them families with children or unaccompanied minors.

“These people are turning themselves over. They want to be found. They’re escaping violence; they’re escaping gangs; they’re escaping poverty,” she says. “The only claim they can make is through the asylum system,” which has not been equipped to handle the burgeoning caseload.

After apprehension, many are released in the United States to wait adjudication of their appeals for asylum, which can easily take years. To many migrants, the process sends a message that if people can make it here, they will get to stay.

At the moment, the most urgent challenge is finding safe shelter and care for the children in U.S. custody.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has publicly pleaded for those who are considering migrating to wait. And perhaps the administration ad campaigns running in Central America will discourage some people from leaving. The cooperation of governments in the region and in Mexico will be crucial to U.S. efforts to reduce the stream of migrants heading north. But the U.S. action likely to be most effective at reducing massive numbers of arrivals bottlenecked at the border would be to expand the system that processes asylum cases.

“It does take longer, but it’s not 10 years into the future,” Meissner says. “It’s six months to a year into the future, and that’s reasonable.” How Biden meets that challenge will help determine whether his vows to remake the immigration system become more than an empty promise.

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Read more:

Charles Lane: Walls don’t work. Open borders don’t work. It’s time to try realism.

Henry Olsen: Biden is sending the wrong signals on the border

The Post’s View: Biden is right to end Trump’s inhumane border policies. The cost is a new surge of migrants.

Greg Sargent: What Republicans really mean when they blast the ‘border crisis’

Letters to the Editor: The emergency at the border starts in Congress