Handing Harris the Border Ball

Terry H. Schwadron

March 26, 2021

The story of handling the immigration is as much about the story-telling as about the current situation.

Television coverage has focused more on the terms being used to describe the situation, the partisan viewpoints and on political and bureaucratic conflicts than on what actually is happening to the migrants. The “failure” of the Biden administration to respond instantly, and to open all facilities to TV cameras ranks higher in news coverage than looking either at the history here, or the conditions from which people are fleeing or on what life is like in unsafe waiting areas just over the border. The issues here are not new, and the border is not “open,” no matter what charges fly on the border.

Conflict is easy to show. Politicians of all stripe are elbowing each other for the camera to denounce all the others for a failure to understand.

While I wish the Biden team had better anticipated this surge and better handled its communications to all parties — including inviting a bipartisan group from Congress and journalists into Customs and Border Patrol facilities — handing the immigration coordination reins to Vice President Kamala Harris says they see the urgency as well as the across-government needs for response and the political complications.

This week, we’ve had more than enough blather about who is most at fault (Donald Trump’s resistance to transition did not help), whether this current surge is relatively comparable to seasonal increases of past years (yes), and whether we’re at a record pace for a bast and complete shift in U.S. policy (We’re not.)

None of that will stop the political story; the immigration bogeyman is too rich a target for Republicans looking for a fatal flaw in Biden’s calm. Still, there’s been plenty of public misstatement that we’re expected to sort out.

Indeed, Joe Biden’s first press conference was relatively dominated with immigration and politics questions — skipping over coronavirus, climate, infrastructure and jobs plans among others. Biden answered them all, but other than establishing himself as one coming with a moral mindset, did not really change any public expectations for overnight fixes. The view was quite different from the decks of river gunboats that Republican senators used yesterday to frame their attempts to say everything bad on the border is Biden’s fault.

Yes, it is true that Customs officers are holding too many young migrants too long, per court orders, but Health and Human Service officials, under pressure of pandemic, understaffing and delay, are beginning to move more of them efficiently to facilities being opened with the help of emergency workers from FEMA, including at military bases. And yes, Biden’s policies were received as mixed messages at best after four years of Trump border insults, seeming to offer hope that U.S. policy is changing, when it is not doing so very much beyond keeping minors who cross the border unaccompanied. And yes, Harris will have her hands full, trying to get several fronts going simultaneously.

Logistics, yes. Policy, no.

But the Biden group turned messy coronavirus vaccine delivery into a positive in weeks, and the logistical aspects of this likely will ease as well, given money, a little time and actual work rather than talk. What won’t go away are the root problems and the impossible politics in Washington. OK, we have overlapping and serious problems for Harris as well as a test for her leadership:

The housing issue: Customs is supposed to hold migrants only for three days; HHS then houses them until a temporary home can be found with a relative or foster home, which means the government must take the time to check them out. The surge has overwhelmed Customs, and backlogged the transfers to HHS. As HHS adds beds, that will ease.

The numbers: Customs this week had 4,800 children and teenagers in facilities for adults, or 3,300 more than they can handle. HHS has 11,200 minors, filling about 94 percent of available beds, which have been restricted by coronavirus quarantines. About 1,000 minors are in temporary shelter at a convention center in Dallas and 300 to a facility at a former camp for oil workers. More space is being opened at convention centers in San Antonio and San Diego and at Fort Bliss and a vacant dormitory at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.

The Northern Triangle countries: Harris will look to coordinate with the various agencies involved in investing billions of dollars into the economies of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in an attempt to get at the root of the problem. This was an aid program shut off by the Trump administration, which concentrated on forcing deportations to either these home countries or any third country on the route to the border. The idea is that there are a number of issues the United States could help the region address, from violence to natural disasters, that the Biden team believes were ignored by the previous administration. Still, over years, these government have proved ineffective or corrupt in using U.S. aid money to make their own citizens feel safe or able to make a living.

Clarifying a consistent message: Biden has wanted to show compassion for minors, while still turning away most migrants at the border. Even though an appeals court allowed the United States to resume expelling minors, Biden has elected to welcome them into the country, where they must be kept in custody until they can be released to sponsors.

The politics: At least in part, Harris must blunt the constantly repeated attempts to use the border issues as political hammering for policies that Biden might adopt, but has not yet done so. At the same time, Harris must deal with pressure from progressives for faster and more complete adoption of exactly those loosened border policies.

Meanwhile, Whom to Blame

More senators and congressmen are headed to the border to listen briefly before launching into speeches that will bring more heat than light, and that will solve exactly nothing.

We know that undocumented immigration tends to increase seasonally in the early spring. Still, the data show a sharper increase in border crossings this spring compared to previous seasons, some experts say that increase is expected given the pent-up demand from delays resulting from the pandemic. Biden and Harris have kept in place Title 42, a public health order put in place by the Trump administration ostensibly to curb the spread of Covid-19, that expels the vast majority of undocumented adults.

In naming Harris as immigration coordinator, Biden owned up to current problems, but noted that despite warning reports in early December, the Trump administration took no action until just days before the inauguration, NBC News reported. In that respect, the resistance to working in transition with the incoming group created a logistics problem akin to the one with vaccine distribution, Biden said. It was not until Jan. 15 that then-HHS Secretary Alex Azar issued a formal request for assistance, which started the multiweek process of surveying and choosing new sites. The Biden administration opened its first site on Feb. 22. At a cost of $250 per bed per day, the Trump administration had 13,000 beds and thousands were empty at that time, but did not account for social distancing restrictions — and the build-up of migrant minors started with a Nov. 18 a federal court ruling that the Trump administration could no longer expel children under CDC authority,.

In other words, there is plenty of blame to go around, as if that were the issue.

What we can expect is lots more political pressure politics from the many sides around immigration. In that regard, naming Harris seems a smart move to elevate and accelerate the solution-making needed and to show that this administration turns into problems rather than walking away from them.

If only Congress could adopt that attitude, perhaps we could make progress on aligning this country’s more comprehensive needs for reasonable and understandable immigration policy.


Donald Trump: MAGA Mob Was No Risk to Congress

Donald Trump showed us again Thursday night just why we want to forget The Former Guy.

He was interviewed by commentator Laura Ingraham on Fox News to comment disparagingly on Joe Biden’s press conference, defend his own immigration policies — and to insist that there was “zero threat” to Congress from the MAGA supporters who swarmed the Capitol on Jan. 6 that resulted in five deaths, including Capitol police officers, and directly threatened former Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Trump said “a lot of the people were waved in” by police during the deadly insurrection. “Some of them went in and . . . they’re hugging and kissing the police and the guards. You know, they had great relationships.. . . ”A lot of the people were waved in and then they walked in and they walked out.”

Capitol and Washington Police, the FBI, the National Guard and the Department of Justice see the same events as a massive set of crimes and domestic terrorism.

The question here is just how self-deluded this guy is.



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