The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The surge in children at the border has faded — and so has the attention paid to it on the right

A woman from Honduras carries her son after they arrived on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande after crossing the river aboard a raft from Mexico on March 24 in Mission, Tex. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The rumblings began in early March: Something unusual was happening at the border.

Anecdotal reports, later bolstered by official government data, pointed to a surprising surge in apprehensions at the U.S. border with Mexico. There were debates about the scale of the surge and its likely duration, but — driven in large part by conservative media outlets such as Fox News Channel — the drumbeat was consistent. President Biden, less than two months into his job, had a veritable crisis on his hands.

In early April, we got data that showed the scale of the issue. The number of people apprehended in March exceeded the surge in 2014 that caused headaches for the administration of Barack Obama and even surpassed the increases in 2018 and 2019 that prompted President Donald Trump to declare a national emergency (in large part so that he could start building a wall before the 2020 election).

The surge in apprehensions itself wasn’t really the problem. The problem, instead, was that so many of those apprehended were children, a group that must legally be treated differently by the government both when initially detained and thereafter. The crisis at the border, such as it was, wasn’t really about the volume of migrants. It was about the number of children that the government needed to address.

In the weeks since, it largely has. Daily data released by Border Patrol show that the number of children being held by that agency has decreased from 5,767 on March 28 to 605 on May 2. The total number of children in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services has declined slightly after peaking near 23,500.

What’s more, the 30-day average of detentions and transfers from the Border Patrol — that is, the difference between those detained and those then transferred out to HHS — flipped in early April. Now, nearly 50 percent more kids are being transferred out of Border Patrol custody on average each day as are being placed in its custody.

Interestingly, for all of the coverage of how the surge in migration affected Biden, polling from YouGov conducted for the Economist doesn’t indicate a significant shift. In January, shortly after he took office, 40 percent of Americans said they somewhat or strongly approved of Biden’s handling of immigration. Among Republicans, that figure was only 13 percent. At the end of March, YouGov found that 35 percent of Americans approved of Biden to that extent, a drop mostly driven by a dip in approval from Democrats. But in a poll conducted last week, his somewhat or strong approval was again at 38 percent, with Democrats just below where they were in January — and Republicans essentially unchanged.

When respondents were asked specifically about the recent surge in that poll last week, Biden fared worse, with only 31 percent of Americans saying they somewhat or strongly approved of his handling of the “situation at the border.” Among Democrats, Biden fared 14 points worse than on immigration overall; among Republicans, there was no difference. But, of course, there wasn’t much room for him to drop.

Perhaps the best indicator that the political crisis Biden seemed to be facing has weakened is that even Fox News has moved on. As the liberal watchdog group Media Matters noted last week, Fox has drifted away from talking about the border. Data from closed-captioning shows how the discussion of the border has decreased on each of the three main cable-news networks since a peak in mid-March peak.

In the week of March 22, Fox talked about the border for about an hour. In the week of April 26, it talked about the border for about 12 minutes.

The objectively good news is that the government now seems better able to handle the strain that accompanies a surge in children arriving at the border. For Biden, the good news is that an issue that was broadly discussed as being a political Achilles’ heel appears to have resolved without hobbling him for any extended period.