The frightening story of a "crisis" at the U.S. border with Mexico, with an "overwhelming surge" of destitute and possibly disease-bearing humans, is now repeated constantly by Republicans and their eager echoes in the mainstream media. But what interest beyond partisanship is served by that narrative? What would serve us all far better is to understand the background of these events so that panic and prejudice don't distort our response.
On Thursday evening, President Joe Biden provided sorely needed context to the "border crisis" when asked whether the latest increase in migration was owed to his kindly image — and his reversal of the cruelest immigration policies of his predecessor.
"I guess I should be flattered that people are coming because I'm a nice guy," Biden said, without quite laughing. Noting that a roughly similar "surge" occurred at the border during the winter of 2019, he asked acidly, "Does anyone suggest there was a 31% increase under Trump because he was a nice guy?"
Nobody is suggesting that, although the Trump partisans complaining about Biden's border policies are trying their demagogic best to hide the truth about what happened then and what is happening now. The Republican impulse to stoke bigotry for political gain is as predictable as the annual pilgrimage of migrants fleeing violence and privation.
Writing in the Washington Post on the day of Biden's press conference, a trio of academic researchers — Tom K. Wong, Gabriel De Roche and Jesus Rojas Venzor — laid out the evidence that the recent increases are seasonal, not political, based on data published by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Their analysis showed that the rising number of migrants arriving at the border during the first five months of fiscal year 2021 closely matched the trend for the same months in fiscal year 2019. The difference was the number of migrants who didn't show up or were turned back in fiscal 2020 and are coming now.
After looking at not only those recent numbers but data for every year dating back to 2012, they "found no clear evidence that the overall increase in border crossings in 2021 can be attributed to Biden administration policies." Instead, they discovered that these migrations are seasonal, owing to the simple fact that as winter turns into spring and summer, the southern deserts are simply too hot and deadly for humans to cross on foot.
If the bulge in migration is so predictable, then the next question is why the Biden administration was unprepared to handle it. And the apparent answer is that it tried but its efforts were thwarted by Trump and his pathetic refusal to recognize his election defeat.
When the Trump White House and its minions across the government declined to cooperate with the Biden transition teams, many predicted that the costs of that irresponsible attitude would eventually come due. And now we're seeing the human cost every day, as unaccompanied children look to cross the border and seek asylum in a country unprepared to receive them.
As NBC News reported on March 24, Biden aides warned their counterparts in Trump's Department of Health and Human Services — which is responsible for migrant children — that many children would be coming to the border shortly and that the facilities to shelter them were insufficient. The Biden team, experienced and competent, sent that message to the Trump officials as early as December. Not only did they anticipate the arrival of Central American kids but they knew that Trump had closed down shelter space as part of his no-tolerance, family-separation approach to immigration.
It was a disastrous mistake. And what made matters far worse was that Trump's HHS officials simply ignored the warnings and did nothing until time ran out. They also brushed off the concerns of nonpartisan HHS staff, who issued the same warnings internally. According to one official who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, "It was irresponsible of the Trump administration not to listen to us when we were throwing up red flags."
Now the Biden administration has to clean up their mess, including their absolute failure to address the underlying causes of migration. They are trying to improve the bad situation at the border as rapidly as possible, and they will need to fashion more effective policies going forward.
But there's at least one thing they know for sure: Trump's cruel attitude toward immigrants accomplished nothing, except to bring misery to innocent families and dishonor to the United States.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.