In the runup to the election last fall, any criticism of Joe Biden’s potential agenda might have earned you an angry response: “THERE ARE KIDS IN CAGES, ASSHOLE,” or some all-caps variant thereof. Any critic of Biden must be a borderline racist, according to this reasoning, callously indifferent to the suffering of migrants at the border.
For those following the actual events at the border, though, that line served to underscore the widespread ignorance of the facts of American immigration policy: By then, the cages were largely empty. The COVID pandemic had given Stephen Miller and his white supremacist superfriends the cover they needed to deliver the coup de grâce to the US asylum system, issuing a “public health” rule that allowed CBP to immediately deport people without even asking them what they were running from, often within minutes.
In other words, the kids that social media scolds were claiming to care so much about were no longer in cages anymore; they were either in secret hotels waiting to be forcibly returned to the countries they’d just fled, or on month ten of being stuck in tents and shelters in dangerous Mexican border cities watching their court dates be postponed into oblivion. A lot of people were evidently more invested in using migrants as a vote-shaming weapon than they were in protecting them from harm.
This is old territory, eloquently covered at the time. But it’s worth revisiting now that the Biden administration has released its long-anticipated executive order on migration, asylum, and the border.
If you ever took to social media to rail about “kids” and “cages” during the Trump years, I encourage you to stroll through immigration Twitter today to get a sense of how the attorneys who’ve been representing those kids feel about Biden’s order. Suffice it to say that the champagne you popped in Prospect Park last fall isn’t exactly making the rounds.
For months, Biden’s team has been downplaying expectations on border policy, telling people that it will “take time” to undo Trump’s most extreme actions. Yesterday’s order is the fruit of that careful process of bar-lowering. Only one of the worst Trump policies was unequivocally discarded. The others, including the sadistic Migrant Protection Protocols, and the “Title 42” public health order that together annihilated the American asylum system, were sent to the Secretary of Homeland Security for “review.”
The Statue of Liberty is back, but apparently she has a lot of paperwork to get through.
The argument is that this is a procedural strategy, meant to give Biden’s DHS time to responsibly unwind Trump’s border agenda. While it’s true that there is legal merit to this approach—a review process makes the changes less likely to be struck down in court—the order was an opportunity to send a clear, full-throated message that the Trump administration’s border policies are a moral abomination with no place in a decent society. Instead, the Biden administration announced that it would “determine whether to terminate or modify” most of those policies in an unspecified time frame.
Whether or not MPP and the public health rule are discarded after a review in the next few months, Biden is now conveniently excused from answering questions, today, about the number of people who could otherwise have been immediately admitted into the US. A cynic might say that his decision to push the responsibility for border policy into a balkanized maze of task forces is as much about covering his own political flank as it is about urgently-needed reforms to the asylum system.
What all this means, now, is that if you’re a Honduran asylum-seeker who fled home after seeing a relative killed by a street gang, and you’ve been stuck in a tent in Matamoros waiting for a court hearing for the last year and a half, nothing has changed for you. For now, at least, the future is as cruel and as uncertain as it was when Trump was in charge.
The order’s approach to the underlying causes of migration in Central America is equally troubling. Biden’s administration appears to understand that it can’t reduce the number of people setting out for the US border without a transformation in the countries they’re fleeing; last night’s order leads with a “root causes strategy” for the Northern Triangle countries. But instead of a detailed plan to improve the lives of Central Americans, what followed was a vague list of boilerplate development objectives like “strengthening democratic governance” and “addressing economic insecurity.”
Where the order became more specific, however, was in its proposal to expand the capacity of Central America and Mexico to resettle asylum seekers before they ever reach the US border. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially the same policy direction the Trump administration was heading in before the pandemic started.
Last month, images of a caravan of Honduran migrants heading towards the US provoked a bout of hysteria among certain centrist pundits, who breathlessly warned that the specter of brown people marching towards the US border could threaten the new Democratic congressional majority. If you remember this episode, you might now be wondering why you didn’t hear more about that caravan afterwards.
The answer is that the Guatemalan military broke the caravan up with tear gas and clubs before it even reached the Mexican border—where yet another phalanx of troops was waiting. This wasn’t unexpected. Under pressure from the Trump administration to reduce migrant flows or lose aid dollars, security forces in Mexico and Central America have been cracking down on migration and aggressively tightening routes that had previously been dangerous, but not impassable.
Trump and his supporters may not have gotten their “big, beautiful wall,” but in keeping with well-worn American tradition, they did manage to outsource its functions to security forces south of the border.
If you think of migrants as entitled job-seekers who don’t respect immigration laws, you might not lose sleep over this. But if, as I do, you see them instead as scared and desperate human beings who often don’t have the option of staying home, it’s an abomination. Biden’s order doesn’t inspire much faith that the violence visited on desperate people by security forces along migration routes is a higher priority for him than the potential for bad electoral optics at the border.
In fairness, Biden officials did clarify that Trump’s “third country agreements”—which allowed ICE and CBP to send asylum seekers to Central American countries without due process—will be terminated. But if the plan is to look the other way as the Mexican and Guatemalan militaries spray migrants with tear gas while the administration pours money into their asylum systems, how much is really changing?
This is an especially disquieting question in light of the news that Mexican police officers were active participants in a horrifying massacre of Guatemalan migrants near the Texas border last month. If telling asylum-seekers to drop their anchors in Guatemala and Mexico was an outrage during the Trump administration, it’s an outrage under Biden. Right now.
Last night’s order was a step in the right direction, however tentative, and if the review processes are quick and lead to definitive action in the very near future, there will be something worth celebrating. But how many people are going to be kidnapped, assaulted, or killed before that review process is completed? And will Democratic voters blindly accept Biden’s argument that it’s not possible to move faster, simply because he isn’t Donald Trump?
Whether or not his rhetoric and progressive personnel appointments translate into strong action in the short term may depend on whether his voters demand immediate change. The last four years saw an explosion of sympathy for migrants and asylum-seekers, largely on the heels of the family separation tragedy. Now we find out whether that will carry over into this new era.
“Kids in cages” crowd, you’re up.