Editorial: New president, same old problem — migrants seeking help at the southern border

Families with children near border in Roma, Texas
Families with children at the U.S.-Mexico border at Roma, Texas. A surge in asylum seekers crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley has put a strain on the immigration system.
(Los Angeles Times)

The big debate in Washington over the last week has been whether the flow of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border is a “crisis” or merely a “challenge,” which makes this one of the silliest political debates in a place rife with them.

Of course it’s a crisis, a humanitarian crisis that has bedeviled a succession of U.S. presidents as it has ebbed and flowed over time. The crisis has been compounded by an out-of-date U.S. immigration system and, in the source countries, deep poverty, unrelenting gang violence — including rape, forced conscription and protection rackets — and governments too riddled with corruption to make things better.

People leave their homes and undertake the dangerous trek from northern Central America to the southern U.S. border for a range of reasons, all of them rooted in the belief that they have no future if they remain where they are. The persistent social and financial problems in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and back-to-back hurricanes last year that wreaked havoc across a region where even in normal times tens of thousands struggle to find jobs and food.


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The response by President Trump and his supporters was to demonize the desperate and count on a physical wall to stop parents from doing whatever they could to save their children or teenage males from trying to reach a haven from the gangs that would kill them, or to somehow be stronger than hunger and dreams.

The Trump administration separated children from their parents as a lesson to others who might follow them — yet others still came. It forced tens of thousands of people with a legal claim for asylum to live in dangerous squalor south of the border — yet still more came. More recently, some have been emboldened by the notion that President Biden would be less draconian, and spurred by misinformation from human smugglers that his new policies will let them in. But there are suggestions the current increase may just be the usual spring spike in migration augmented by movement among those who’d reached the border last year but hunkered down rather than risk summary deportation under Trump’s closed-border policy.

Biden’s response has been deliberate — too much so for many pro-immigrant progressives. He ordered an end to Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy that effectively halted the asylum system, and he began allowing some families entry (after Mexico for a time rebuffed U.S. efforts to send migrant families back across the border). He also has resumed admitting unaccompanied minors, although the administration’s inability to find sponsors fast enough to match the surge in arrivals has led minors to be detained far longer than the law allows. All while sending the message to Central America that the border remains closed, and they should not come.

Yet still they come.

Biden also has left in place Trump’s declaration that the pandemic justified shutting the border to new arrivals. Biden also has moved to reopen some children’s detention centers, arguing credibly that the government needed more capacity to process the young arrivals while maintaining COVID-19 safeguards. Those positions have predictably, and perhaps rightly, outraged immigration advocates.

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Now the president has deputized Vice President Kamala Harris to direct the government’s border response and oversee diplomatic talks with Central American and Mexican political leaders. In a sense she will reprise a role Biden played for President Obama, and we wish her luck and swift success.

While the flow of people to the U.S.-Mexico border may currently be Biden’s crisis to contend with, but it is Congress’ problem to fix by revamping the immigration laws to better reflect the demands and the needs of the nation and those who want to join us. We need to give desperate people a reason to believe legal immigration is the better path to take, which requires a system in which everyone can have confidence. A president alone can’t do that, whether his name is Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump or Biden, all of whom grappled with the issue.

So how is this Congress responding? About the same as the last few Congresses. There have been visits to the border (including one bipartisan trip led by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas), some cynical grandstanding by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), some long-shot pieces of legislation and, as we mentioned, an inane debate over terminology — crisis vs. challenge.

Does it really matter what we call it when congressional leaders can’t bring themselves to fix it? Whether it’s failing to rise to the crisis or failing to rise to the challenge, it’s still failing.