So far this year, border officials have reported a record 2.2 million encounters with migrants attempting to enter the country from the south. Rules put in place at the start of the pandemic allowed the US to expel many of these migrants to Mexico or to their home countries, but in recent months, increasing numbers have come from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, whose authoritarian governments refuse to cooperate. As a result, you have thousands of asylum seekers have been released into the US while their cases are adjudicated.
In April, Texas Governor Greg Abbott began busing migrants to Washington, DC, a program he later expanded to New York City and Chicago. Not to be outdone, Florida’s Ron DeSantis helped fly some 50 Venezuelan asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, supposedly in retaliation for the federal government’s sending migrants to Florida without notice.
If these stunts were intended to catch Democratic leaders in northern cities unprepared, they’ve succeeded. Neither Abbott nor DeSantis alerted the receiving cities before acting. Having received more than 11,000 migrants since May, New York City is considering cruise ships as temporary housing. Washington’s mayor has declared a public-health emergency. Massachusetts and Illinois have mobilized the National Guard.
All told, this spectacle has been a national embarrassment. Republican governors may have a point about border security, but they’ve forfeited any moral authority by treating vulnerable people as props. Although Biden has (rightly) denounced the relocation stunts as “un-American,” his administration has contributed to the problem by haphazardly unwinding restrictions on entries while failing to establish adequate alternatives. For its part, Congress has failed to pass commonsense immigration reforms that would clamp down on illegal border crossings while expanding legal pathways for the immigrant workers the country needs.
First, all asylum seekers need temporary shelter and basic services. Currently, their welfare is at the mercy of whichever municipality they end up in or whatever charity offers them aid. Congress should increase Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for migrant assistance, which at the moment totals just $150 million — barely enough to help the thousands coming to New York, let alone the rest of the nation. Federal assistance to border states should be boosted on the condition that no money be amused to transport migrants to other communities without the agreement of local authorities. Big cities such as Washington and New York should expect to devote more of their own funds to handle the continued influx, particularly if they’ve advertised themselves as “sanctuaries.”
At the same time, the government needs to address the underlying problems that have led to this crisis. Most important, it needs to fix the system for adjudicating asylum claims. The US spends $750 million a year on immigration courts, compared to $7.2 billion on border enforcement. A shortage of asylum officers, judges and clerks has contributed to a backlog of 2 million pending immigration court cases, which often take years to resolve. That’s simply unsustainable. A sizable increase in funds for this system should be paired with reforms — such as empowering asylum officers to fully adjudicate cases, while allowing for appeals to a judge — that would accelerate processing, reduce backlogs and potentially limit the perverse incentives that have led so many migrants to try their luck in the first place.
Above all, ending the partisan bickering and gamesmanship over the chaos at the border requires leadership. It may be naive to expect Biden to call attention to such a crisis in an election year. But it’s his responsibility to work with leaders on both sides to fix it.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• Texas and Florida Are Going Full Belarus on Migrants: Andreas Kluth
• The Solution to US Border Woes Is No Secret: Eduardo Porter
• Immigrants on Martha’s Vineyard Expose US Immigration Hypocrisy: Tyler Cowen
The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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