What is the best way to honor and preserve the American tradition of welcoming immigrants? Treating them as stage props, as Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida did last week by flying some 50 unsuspecting Venezuelan refugees to Martha’s Vineyard, isn’t it — even if progressive reaction was beyond parody: If Edgartown feels stressed by having to host a few dozen unexpected guests for a day, how are the residents of places along the border supposed to feel about the thousands coming in uninvited every day?
Yet however crass DeSantis’ stunt, it succeeded politically because it responded to a see-no-problem, admit-no-fault, disavow-the-consequences and blame-the-last-guy border policy. Maybe it’s time for the administration to start working on something better.
To understand the current state of play, consider Vice President Kamala Harris’ recent exchange about immigration with NBC’s Chuck Todd:
Todd: “Would you call the border secure?”
Harris: “I think that there is no question that we have to do what the president and I asked Congress to do. The first request we made, pass a bill to create a pathway to citizenship. The border is secure. But we also have a broken immigration system, in particular over the last four years before we came in and it needs to be fixed.”
Todd: “We’re going to have 2 million people cross this border for the first time ever. You’re confident this border is secure?”
Harris: “We have a secure border in that that is a priority for any nation including ours and our administration.”
Was this some sort of bold semantic attempt to redefine the concept of “secure border”? In the calendar year 2019 (the last prepandemic year of the Trump administration) there were roughly 921,000 “encounters” between customs agents and migrants at the southern border, according to government data. In calendar year 2021, that number jumped to about 2 million. In 2022, by the end of August, it had already reached about 1.6 million. Many of these encounters lead to immediate deportation, but other migrants are released to await hearings they may never attend while hundreds of thousands more slip across the border undetected.
The administration likes to blame turmoil in Central and South America, particularly Venezuela, for the recent surge. But the Venezuelan refugee crisis has been years in the making. COVID unmistakably worsened conditions throughout Latin America, but that’s not a convincing explanation, either: There has been economic, political and social misery in the region for centuries, and previous surges in migration, but nothing on the scale we’re seeing now.
A better explanation is that the Biden administration came to office loudly advertising the fact that it was not Donald Trump, which is why the surge began almost to the day Biden took office. “Sensing a change in tone and approach after Mr. Trump’s defeat, migrants are once again fleeing poverty, violence and the devastation left by hurricanes and heading north toward the United States,” The Times’ Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Michael D. Shear reported in March 2021.
This was not an accident of policy. It was an intention. Biden ran for president promising to end Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. In office, he immediately signed an executive order suspending wall construction. He proposed legislation promising a path to citizenship. His administration has fought to end Title 42, the most effective tool border agents have to immediately deport the migrants they apprehend. The overall message raised migrant expectations through the roof, setting off a predictable crisis at the border within a week of Biden’s taking office, as The Times’ Kirk Semple reported at the time.
This is political malpractice on multiple levels.
The crisis at the border strains frontline communities to the breaking point. It strains faith in the rule of law. It makes a mockery of the legal immigration system, and the people who play by its exacting rules. And it makes a mockery of people like Harris and others making fools of themselves by trying to defend a visibly failed policy.
The crisis is an invitation to nativist demagogy. It was Trump’s ticket to the White House and might be DeSantis’, too. It alienates thoughtful Republicans who believe in the benefits of managed migration but are trumped, so to speak, by the argument about lawlessness. And it undermines the case for the path to citizenship, since opponents of the legislation can plausibly argue that the path does less to solve an illegal immigration problem than it does to create incentives for a new one.
The crisis is a failure of liberalism, classic and contemporary. It calls into question the ability, or willingness, of a Democratic president to solve a basic law-and-order issue when it conflicts with progressive pieties. And it raises a more profound question of maintaining a civic identity in a country where too many people aren’t even citizens.
There’s a solution to this. It requires us to be much more hardheaded at our borders — like by finishing the wall — so we can be more softhearted toward those trying to cross them. It’s not too late for the president to seize the chance to get this right.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.