This post has been updated with President Biden’s latest comments, in which he pushed a somewhat harder line than Mayorkas had.

In 2014, the United States was experiencing a huge surge in unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. Today, it’s happening again. And one word demonstrates the Democratic Party’s continued and somewhat muddled evolution on immigration in recent years:


When that surge was taking place in 2014, President Barack Obama responded with a stern message for those who would make the trek north.

“Do not send your children to the borders,” Obama told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos. “If they do make it, they’ll get sent back.”

He also warned that much worse fates could await along the journey.

Today, the Biden administration’s new homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, has offered a warning that differs mainly in one word, but also hugely in emphasis. In an interview with the same ABC host Tuesday, Mayorkas said that people shouldn’t come to the border … yet.

“We are also — and critically — sending a message that now is not the time to come to the border,” Mayorkas said, adding: “Do not take the journey now. Give us time to build an orderly, safe way to arrive in the United States and make the claims that the law permits you to make.”

The comments are clearly the administration’s talking point, as Mayorkas said much the same thing two weeks ago.

“We are not saying, ‘Don’t come,’ ” Mayorkas said at a White House briefing. “We are saying, ‘Don’t come now, because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process to them as quickly as possible.’ ”

Stephanopoulos pressed Mayorkas on this talking point, asking whether the better message amid the surge might be “don’t come, period” — the same thing Obama said seven years ago. But Mayorkas made clear he was pleading for time rather than a full-on change in plans.

“Well I think, actually, do not come now,” Mayorkas said. “Give us the time to rebuild the system that was entirely dismantled in the prior administration. And we have in fact begun to rebuild that system.”

Democrats on March 14 blamed former president Donald Trump for failing to address migration at the southern U.S. border as crossings surged in recent weeks. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Biden seemed to scale that back in a later-broadcast interview with Stephanopoulos. As with Mayorkas, the host pressed Biden on whether the better message is to not come at all.

Rather than pleading for time, Biden responded in a way that was more in line with what Obama said in 2014, though not quite as strong.

“Yes, I can say quite clearly: Don’t come over,” Biden said. He added later that “we’re sending back people” who cross the border.

There are myriad nuances in immigration policy. In this case, that begins with whether the unaccompanied minors arriving at the border might have legitimate asylum claims or might have family in the United States with whom they could be matched. It’s not simply a matter of whether you let all undocumented immigrants into the country, as some of Biden’s critics suggest.

But that nuance wasn’t so heavily featured seven years ago. And there has been a clear shift in emphasis — and not for the first time between the Obama administration and the Biden administration, or between what Democrats said about this several years ago vs. what they say now.

Around the same time Obama sent his stern message to would-be migrants in 2014, former secretary of state and later 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton echoed his comments in a CNN town hall. When it was noted that conditions here were safer than in many of their home countries, Clinton responded that “it may be safer, but that’s not the answer.”

Asked whether she was saying border-crossers should be deported, Clinton agreed that was the preferable course, though not always practical.

“They should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are, because there are concerns about whether all of them can be sent back,” Clinton said. “But I think all of them who can be should be reunited with their families.”

Again, saying you don’t yet have the facilities and processes in place to deal with the influx is not the same as saying you will welcome everyone. But Mayorkas’s comments are hardly the only ones that suggest a more welcoming posture toward people aiming for the border. And the Biden administration has effectively acknowledged that.

At a briefing last week, the administration’s coordinator for the Southern border, Roberta Jacobson, acknowledged that the administration’s more, in her words, “humane” approach might be drawing people northward in high numbers.

“Surges tend to respond to hope, and there was a significant hope for a more humane policy after four years of, you know, pent-up demand,” Jacobson said, referring to the Donald Trump administration’s hard-line policies that included controversially separating families at the border. “So I don’t know whether I would call that a ‘coincidence,’ but I certainly think that the idea that a more humane policy would be in place may have driven people to make that decision.”

Jacobson added that smugglers were allegedly using this to spread misinformation about people’s actual hopes of being able to enter the United States.

Biden again seemed to differ somewhat with his own officials, though, telling Stephanopoulos in the new interview, “The idea that Joe Biden said, ‘Come’ -- because I heard the other day that they’re coming because they know I’m a nice guy. ... Here’s the deal, they’re not."

The thing is, whether they actually think Biden’s a nice guy or just that he’s not as hard-line as Trump was, that’s an entirely logical factor in the surge. That said, admitting that and suggesting that people might simply delay coming -- rather than not come at all -- is not the same as smart politics, given Republicans have sought to raise this as an issue whenever possible. And Republicans are already using and are very likely to continue to use Mayorkas’s and Jacobson’s comments to argue that the Biden administration is welcoming people to the border. Biden seemed to attempt a bit of a course-correction in his interview.

The Democratic Party’s vision of what smart immigration policy is has definitively evolved over the past two decades. Many of its leaders, including Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), were rather hard-line on the border in the mid-2000s, saying things that echo much of what the Republican Party says today. The party has since become much more concerned about what its more liberal supporters and the increasingly important Hispanic demographic think, though they backslid a bit with that latter demographic in 2020.

The question for Democrats now is whether saying people should proceed with plans to come to the border — now or when the system can better deal with them — is what Americans want to hear when we have a brewing crisis there.