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Analysis: What the immigration ‘crisis’ debate is missing

Cillizza: How did we get here so quickly? Biden has only been president for 51 days! Is this the result of one specific policy change? Or a series of them?

Shoichet: People who follow immigration closely will tell you the latest situation at the border has been building for a while. We were seeing numbers climbing in late 2020, too.

It’s really important to remember that people migrate for many reasons, and who is president of the United States is often not a huge part of the equation. Sure, it might be a factor that nudges someone who’s undecided one way or the other. And some migrants near the Mexico-Guatemala border who recently spoke to CNN did mention that they were hopeful that the new administration would be more sympathetic to immigration.
But we have seen a number of major events recently impacting the region of the world where many of these migrants are coming from — two devastating hurricanes and endemic poverty issues that were exacerbated by a pandemic being chief among them. Experts call these “push factors” (compared to “pull factors,” which would be things in the US that incentivize people to come). And they really should be a big part of the conversation about what’s happening right now and why.
In terms of what has changed during the Biden administration, a significant policy change that’s led to some of what we’re seeing is that the US is no longer using the pandemic to immediately turn away children at the border — many of whom are seeking asylum. That’s something the Trump administration did pretty early on, along with a lot of other changes that used the pandemic to crack down on immigration. The Biden administration has been very clear that they want to take a more humanitarian approach at the border. And that means they are no longer turning away the unaccompanied minors that are showing up.

Cillizza: Is it fair to describe what is happening on the southern border right now as a crisis? Why or why not?

Shoichet: I am very careful about using that word because when we call things a “crisis” the conversation goes into a pretty hyperbolic place very quickly, where the facts sort of fade into the background and political debate takes over. I’ve been covering immigration for years and we’ve seen periodic frenzy around the border over and over again. At a certain point, you have to ask, is this a crisis, or is this a regular migration pattern that ebbs and flows because of a number of factors?

Having said that, there are very serious issues going on at the border that we should all be paying attention to. Among them:

* There’s a record high number of kids in [Customs and Border Protection] facilities, and they’re being held there longer than [the limit] the law requires.
* There are still thousands of people waiting in Mexico — many of them in dire and dangerous conditions — while their immigration cases make their way through US courts.
* There appears to be an uptick in the number of migrants arriving (though we need to be careful about these numbers, because they may be counting individuals multiple times). And climate change and natural disasters are likely one reason why.

Cillizza: What is the Biden administration doing — in terms of concrete actions — to deal with what is happening?

Shoichet: This is a fast-moving situation and we’re still waiting to learn more about what the Biden administration is doing.
One effort that was discussed at a White House press briefing this week is an effort to address the “root causes” of immigration (these are the push factors I mentioned earlier). Ambassador Roberta Jacobson, special assistant to the president and coordinator for the southern border, said the administration wants to spend $4 billion over four years to do this (one big question to keep in mind about this: We’ve heard other administrations say they’re going to do this before, too — and they’ve tried. What could the Biden administration do differently this time?)

Jacobson also said the administration is trying to open up more avenues for people to immigrate legally, such as the Central American Minors program, which provides a pathway for children in the region to reunite with parents in the United States.

Cillizza: Republicans have seized on the border situation and Biden’s immigration plan as “left-wing amnesty.” How fair is that? Or not?

Shoichet: I don’t want to get into putting a value judgment on political rhetoric on either side of the aisle. But one thing I can say is the Biden administration would feel that’s an unfair characterization for a number of reasons.

It’s certainly true that from the beginning of this administration they have said they’re prioritizing immigration and pushing to create a more just and humane and functional system. Legislation President Biden has proposed would provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of people. That would be a huge change, the likes of which we haven’t seen since President Reagan’s amnesty measure in the 1980s.

There was a brief honeymoon period at the very beginning of the Biden administration. But advocates on the left have started to become increasingly critical of this administration and I think would argue that there’s nothing radical about various things that are being proposed — and also that there’s a big gap still between words and actions. They’re waiting for this administration to start really walking the walk.

But one key point is that painting immigration as a partisan issue is problematic. I have traveled all over the country talking to people on many sides of this topic, and when you are actually talking with people about their communities it ends up being a lot less political than you might think. Back in 2011, for example, I profiled the Republican mayor of a small town in Georgia — a farming community — who counted a family of undocumented immigrants among his closest friends. And if you look at polling data, there are a lot of people who agree that the existing immigration system isn’t working.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The single best metric to watch as it relates to when we will know the border situation is improving is ________.” Now, explain.

Shoichet: I’ll take a stab at answering this question, but one thing I would like to point out first is that we get really caught up in numbers and data about the border because it’s information that’s more readily available and of course it gives us some sort of big-picture indicator of the situation.

But these are people’s lives we’re talking about — many of whom have fled danger, or who are desperately seeking economic opportunities, or who are doing what they can to survive. And I fear sometimes the focus on numbers is so abstract that it’s dehumanizing and also gets us away from talking about what is really going on and what that means for a person’s life or for a community.

OK, now I’ll fill in that blank. I’d say at this moment the best metric to watch is a number our colleague Priscilla Alvarez has been following very closely — the total number of kids in CBP custody and the average length of time they’re being held.

The reason why this is so important is because right now, there’s sort of a perfect storm of circumstances that could really put people’s safety at risk. In part because of the pandemic, and in part because of the sheer number of people arriving, there isn’t enough bed space in the shelters for unaccompanied minors run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

So children are being held on average in CBP facilities longer than the 72-hour limit the law requires. The reason there are those limits is because there have been a lot of concerns about making sure children who are in US custody are adequately cared for. And we’ve seen and heard alarming things about conditions in CBP custody before when there have been increases in the number of immigrants held in facilities that don’t have enough capacity or aren’t designed, for example, to take care of children.

And I think no matter where someone stands on immigration as an issue, everyone should be able to agree that it’s extremely important for children not to be put at risk by any government policy.

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