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Opinion: Restoring Order at Our Southwest Border Must Happen Now

Waiting until November will end in chaos.

Last month, the Senate reached a bipartisan border security agreement for the first time in over a decade. Former President Donald Trump and House Speaker Mike Johnson promptly torpedoed it for perceived political gain. But President Joe Biden reportedly will issue an executive order enabling federal authorities to “close the border” when the number of people arriving without a lawful right to enter the country exceeds a specified weekly average or number in a single day. In effect, the administration will unilaterally implement a key provision of the historic Senate accord. As well it should.

During the last three presidential administrations, we have faced recurring crises at the border caused by an asylum system that is thoroughly broken and easily exploited by human smugglers and the economic migrants whose misery they exploit. Present law permits persons arriving at the border to assert a claim for asylum and, if they pass a low threshold preliminary screening, to be admitted into the country. They are allowed to live and work legally while awaiting immigration proceedings that are years away, given the massive backlogs in an overwhelmed immigration court system. Since less than half of those asylum claims eventually succeed, many migrants simply will not show-up for their court hearings and disappear into the country, with few ever being deported.

Although problems with the southwest border have persisted for decades, the current crisis began with the arrival of unaccompanied minors in 2014-2015 from Central America. It hasn’t stopped. Trump, for all of his hostile rhetoric and border policy cruelty, faced the same situation, culminating in 132,000 irregular migrants arriving in May 2019. The numbers have skyrocketed to more than 3.2 million this past year, as the more permissive policies of the Biden administration, coupled with severe economic or political displacement, incentivized people from Mexico, Central America, South America and elsewhere outside the hemisphere to hazard the perilous journey to the US Criminal smuggling organizations continue to profit from their desperation and the paralysis in Congress to reform our thoroughly outdated immigration system.

Although the Senate bipartisan agreement wasn’t perfect, it contained many provisions that would help alleviate the current crisis. In addition to permitting a partial border shut-down when the number of illegal entries exceeds a certain level, the bargain called for increasing the number of asylum officers at the border, immediately rejecting people with criminal histories, and improving methods for tracking individuals and families awaiting asylum hearings. These measures could all be implemented through executive action.

If Biden acts by executive order, many in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing will cry bloody murder, but they should think twice about the impact in November of failing to address the situation now and what will follow if Trump is again elected president. (Trump’s principal immigration advisor, Stephen Miller, already has outlined the thoroughly Stalinist plan he has in mind replete with migration concentration camps as a prelude to mass deportations.) If Biden goes forward with the plan and implements other elements of the recent bipartisan bargain that are within his authority, he could not only accomplish what is strategically required at the border but also highlight Trump’s hypocritical inaction.

There is clear consensus in the country that the current situation on the border is untenable. A lasting solution will necessarily involve bipartisan action that provides wholesale reform of our immigration system and the resources required to implement it. In the short term, however, the imperative is to restore order at our southwest border and to bypass the Trump-led minority that prefers chaos as a backdrop to the upcoming election. Decisive action by Biden would achieve both objectives. The senators who brokered the defeated border bill showed unusual political courage. By implementing as much of their compromise as he is lawfully able, Biden will, as well.


This article was originally published on March 6 in the San Diego Union Tribune.

About the Author

Alan Bersin

Global Fellow;
Former Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and Chief Diplomatic Officer, Office of Policy, Department of Homeland Security
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more