The recent headline-grabbing figures — 97,000 apprehensions in February, a two-year high, and a pace of illegal border crossing that, if sustained, would mark the highest level in two decades — are misportrayed as bedlam. In fact, the large majority of apprehended migrants, most of them single Mexican adults, are swiftly expelled under a public health order adopted a year ago under the Trump administration, which remains in effect.
Simultaneously, a smaller spike in unaccompanied minors from Central America, including teenagers and younger children, has taxed border stations and inland detention centers where young migrants await placement with relatives already in the United States. That influx arises from President Biden’s decision to exempt unaccompanied migrants under 18 years old from instant expulsion under the health emergency — a shift in line with U.S. law and values.
Both increases are driven by poverty, violence, instability and natural disasters south of the border; both are also driven by the Biden administration’s mixed messaging. The president has pronounced the border closed, while rescinding the Trump administration’s wait-in-Mexico policy for asylum seekers — a policy that gave rise to squalid Mexican border camps — and moving to freeze most deportations. Many migrants and traffickers heeded the second message, and set off to the north.
The main risks are political — for Democrats, forced to defend the administration’s border policies as they seek to retain control of Congress next year — and humanitarian, for unaccompanied minors who have been packed into ill-equipped border stations. Officials are deploying the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the border and opened additional facilities in Texas to handle an overflow that must not be allowed to get out of hand. Separately, Mexico has agreed to clamp down at its own southern border on Central American migrants heading north, a helpful move.
Yet despite fearmongering by Republicans, the current influx is neither a public health emergency nor a national security threat. The vast majority of those allowed to enter the country will join relatives here while their asylum claims plod along. That wait is too long — it can stretch to three years or more — and the administration insists it will shrink the backlog. It has also earmarked $4 billion in aid from the pandemic relief bill for Central America — with strings attached to prevent its misuse — to attack the conditions that make life miserable there and drive migrants to seek refuge in this country.
The numbers of illegal border crossers began climbing nearly a year ago. Mr. Biden, intentionally or not, has encouraged the flow, in the name of a more humane policy. Americans would be wise to welcome a new approach while insisting on orderly management at the border, along with focused enforcement and messaging, to prevent a surge from becoming a real crisis.