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The Biden administration’s plan to erect a new section of border wall is disappointing not only because it contradicts a campaign promise, nor just because physical barriers are a return to the same tired policy responses of the Trump era.
Rather, this week’s news around the project – slated for a rural region along the Texas-Mexico border – is upsetting most of all because it stands in stark contrast to the solutions the US immigration system needs right now.
Even the highest walls often do not deter desperate migrants and asylum seekers from trying to reach the US. That was true during the previous administration, and it remains true today. Instead, those barriers leave people who cross anyway at higher risk of injury and death, contributing to a growing list of casualties that has turned the US-Mexico border into the world’s most lethal land migration route.
Already, blowback to renewed border wall construction has been swift and intense. Representative Henry Cuellar, Biden’s fellow Democrat whose large south Texas district includes the county with the new planned barriers, called it “a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem”. To conservation advocates, it means bulldozing “irreplaceable” habitats. Some of the local communities say it feels like “a slap in the face” that will “punish the most innocent”.
And, for national immigration advocates, it is yet another letdown that demonstrates a disregard for human dignity within a larger broken immigration system.
Given the absence of legislative reforms, and given pressure on the Biden administration to reduce irregular migration, the US-Mexico border is chaotic these days, though not necessarily in the way most Americans think.
In the name of deterrence, people fleeing for their lives who might otherwise qualify for asylum are being presumed ineligible because of how they arrived, under a policy that has already been ruled unlawful yet remains in place. Many thousands of non-Mexicans are suddenly being sent back across the border to Mexico, a foreign country where they likely have next to no support or contacts, and where they face grave danger of sexual assault, kidnappings, extortion, and other violence.
In light of a humanitarian emergency and political repression in Venezuela, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has allowed Venezuelans who made it here by the end of July to access deportation protections and work authorization. Yet Venezuelans arriving today can be directly deported to the same authoritarian regime where US officials explicitly acknowledged a few weeks ago that people could not safely return.
Similarly, the Biden administration continues to repatriate Haitians, even as it tells Americans and non-emergency government personnel to depart Haiti for security reasons.
Meanwhile, DHS has removed or returned over 36,000 migrant family members in the last few months – more than in any previous full fiscal year. The unluckiest of asylum seekers, families included, are being put through particularly fast-tracked deportations, where they often confront a higher bar to qualify for protection and have almost no time to prepare their case.
This tangle of convoluted policies demonstrates why more walls are not the answer that the US’s immigration policy strategy needs: It’s already a labyrinth. Barrier after barrier – some more visible than others, but all formidable – work together to confuse, limit and disqualify people trying to reach the US.
Even so, the restrictions have not stopped newcomers.
The Border Patrol documented over 181,000 migrant encounters between official ports of entry at the US-Mexico border in August. That number is expected to rise in September, with early estimates showing roughly 210,000 apprehensions last month, according to CBS News.
To try to get here, little girls cry as they crawl beneath razor wire, and in some of the most tragic cases, kids are dying. Amid this humanitarian emergency, a sprawling border wall – to use Biden’s own words – “is not a serious policy solution”. Neither is the House GOP’s sweeping but specious legislative proposal, the Secure the Border Act, which continues to take an enforcement-only approach to immigration by gutting asylum, curtailing other existing lawful pathways, establishing new criminal penalties, and more.
There’s so much work Democrats and Republicans – the White House and Congress – should take up. For one, the Biden administration could expand processing capacity at official ports of entry and let more migrants in there, even if they don’t have a pre-scheduled appointment through a government phone app, and without rendering them ineligible for asylum. That way, children and families could walk across an international pedestrian bridge with far less struggle than they can wade through a river or stumble through the desert.
Ultimately, however, the buck stops with Congress. The best, most proactive way to keep many people from showing up at the US-Mexico border is to offer them a safer, more orderly pathway here, but such immigration avenues are in woefully short supply right now.
It will take both parties working together in good faith to address border security and improve the legal immigration system, a compromise supported by the vast majority of American voters. Lawmakers can expand labor pathways, update the US’s humanitarian protections to meet 21st-century challenges, and offer permanent solutions for people who are already here contributing while stuck in a protracted legal limbo.
In other words, they can fight arbitrary cruelty and chaos at the border by making our immigration system work again.