Children are being dropped over the wall between the United States and Mexico. People are crowding into makeshift camps without adequate sanitary facilities. At least two individuals on the FBI’s terrorism watch-list apprehended trying to cross the border. Hundreds of migrant families sleeping under a bridge.
It’s hard to overstate the crisis on America’s southern border. But this is far from the only time something like this has happened.
In 2014, the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border, mainly from Central America, increased 80 percent over the previous year. Word had spread quickly that the Obama administration was pursuing a de facto policy of allowing unaccompanied children to remain in the U.S. Immigration laws were not being enforced, and non-Mexicans especially were hardly ever deported. Unaccompanied children were even less likely to be returned to their home countries.
In 2015, after German chancellor Angela Merkel had issued a basically open invitation to any refugees from war-torn Syria, more than a million migrants from throughout the Middle East and Africa made their way to Europe. Almost four thousand died trying to reach Europe by sea. Many more were stranded in overcrowded refugee camps, mainly in Greece, under deplorable conditions.
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In both of these earlier cases, reality ultimately won out over open-borders ideology. In 2016, the European Union (with Angela Merkel as the primary mover) and Turkey reached a deal. In exchange for substantial EU financial assistance and other incentives, Turkey agreed to accept returns of illegal migrants from Greece—and stop them from going back to Europe.
The United States didn’t summon the will to effectively secure the border and enforce immigration laws until former President Donald Trump took office. A key aspect of the Trump effort involved dealmaking with Mexico, the transit country of migrants from Central America (much like Turkey is a transit country into Europe for migrants from the Middle East).
Mexico agreed to step up enforcement of its own southern border and supported the U.S. policy of returning non-Mexican migrants to Mexico to await the results of their asylum applications. With passage through Mexico more uncertain and without the prospect of being allowed into the United States with few strings attached, illegal border crossings plummeted.
In addition to making arrangements with transit countries, the United States and the EU also enhanced border security capabilities. The EU substantially strengthened Frontex, its agency for coordinating among border authorities of EU member states. Increasingly, Frontex is living up to its claim to be an effective European Border and Coast Guard Agency.
Despite some political controversy, some EU member states have also improved their physical border barriers. For its part, the United States under Trump made serious headway toward building the “wall” along the southern border and increased the staffing of law-enforcement agencies tasked with enforcing border security. All the while, both the EU and the Trump administration made it clear that immigrants who arrived through legal channels would be welcome.
In both cases, these solutions were pragmatic, the best that could be done under the circumstances. But they didn't solve the long-range problem that Europe and the United States share as prosperous societies that remain magnets for people from regions ridden by poverty, instability and violence. They did, however, bring the borders under a reasonable level of control, and dramatically reduced illegal immigration. Given how similar the EU and U.S. responses were, it’s ironic how eager EU leaders were to distance themselves from Trump and criticize his policies.
In that same knee-jerk anti-Trump spirit, the new Biden administration has made a point of revoking Trump policies, even though they were working. In the interest of showing himself to be kinder, gentler and more welcoming than Trump, you could almost say that the Joe Biden of 2021 is channeling the Angela Merkel of 2015.
Almost immediately upon taking office, President Joe Biden stopped further construction of the “wall” and other barriers along the border, tied the hands of border security and law enforcement personnel, and discarded the agreements with Mexico and Central American countries that slowed the flow of illegal migrants. Not surprisingly, illegal border crossings have surged to a level not seen in at least fifteen years.
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Clearly, the Biden lack of policy direction is heading toward total failure. If it continues, then it will threaten U.S. national and economic security and undermine respect for the rule of law. This isn’t the change most people were expecting or hoping for.
Irving Kristol once said a conservative is “a liberal mugged by reality.” The reality is that mass migration into rich countries is not the solution to the tragically intractable problems in poor and war-torn countries. Less than three months after his inauguration, Biden is already being mugged by this reality, just as Merkel was in 2015. Let’s hope he accepts the facts and does what Merkel did.
A first step in the right direction would be restoring the common-sense Trump policies that he revoked. Yes, immigration remains a highly charged political issue on both sides of the Atlantic, with strong voices advocating everything from virtually open borders all the way to strict border enforcement and a reduction in legal immigration and refugee numbers. But reality dictates that every government that respects the rule of law must police its borders, get illegal immigration under control, and make and enforce an immigration policy that is in its national interest and acceptable to its citizens.
Should that be too much to ask of the Biden administration?
This piece originally appeared in The National Interest https://nationalinterest.org/feature/time-joe-biden-become-realist-border-crisis-183266