Opinion | Biden’s shift on immigration acknowledges the obvious


When President Biden was rolling out his new, tougher “border enforcement” policy on Thursday, a reporter asked whether he believed, as many in his party do, that “migration is a human right.”

Well, yes, Biden answered, “it is a human right … if your family is being persecuted.” But he went on express something that Democrats rarely discuss — “the other side of this,” he said — which is that Americans want a secure, enforceable border, rather than the pell-mell chaos of the current, broken system.

“The people in this country have … basic fundamental rights to assure the people who are coming have been checked out,” he explained. “There has to be an orderly process and rationale to it.”

Biden’s statement of the obvious drew angry criticism from Democratic activists. An immigration advocate called his new border policy “callous.” A human rights leader described it as “a humanitarian disgrace.” The critics seemed to imply that the very idea of border control is morally wrong. This progressive view is compassionate but misconceived. Border security can be abused, but it’s an essential requirement for a free, sovereign nation.

The right denounced the new enforcement policy, too. That’s because, even as Biden expanded restrictions on illegal entry, he broadened a policy of two-year “parole,” with work permits included, for 30,000 immigrants a month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela who apply through an official portal and have financial sponsorship. For many MAGA activists, the right level of immigration is none.

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Biden hasn’t wanted to go near the border, literally, given how toxic the issue of immigration has become for the Democrats. But he stepped into the minefield with his trip to El Paso on Sunday and his summit meetings in Mexico City on Monday and Tuesday. And frankly, it’s about time he took on the issue forthrightly. Other Democrats and Republicans should follow.

What Biden proposes is a trade-off. Border enforcement will be tougher. The penalties for illegal migration will increase, and those caught attempting to enter the United States without legal permission will face expedited removal and a five-year ban on reentry. But at the same time, the parole process will be expanded for the four countries, and Mexico will accept up to 30,000 migrants a month from those countries who tried to enter illegally.

Asylum will remain a moral and legal obligation under the new plan. But asylum seekers who don’t use a legal pathway through a third country will face a “rebuttable presumption” that their claims are invalid. The central idea is that while migration is essential, it must be more orderly and manageable.

The policy goes a little way in both directions, which no one is very happy with. My sense is that this is Biden’s home ground, in the middle, taking potshots from both sides. His patchwork centrism is easy to knock, but it’s why he was elected in 2020, and why his party did surprisingly well in the midterms. In a dysfunctional political system, Biden manages to get things done. He might seem to stumble, but it’s usually uphill.

“I don’t want to pretend there’s anything easy about it,” Biden said Thursday of the border-enforcement problem. White House officials know that what they have announced is a temporary fix, at best. Right now, there are only bad policies on immigration. There is no upside to this issue, but Biden must still navigate the political swamp.

What seems to have led the White House to frame a pragmatic compromise on immigration was that protests about last year’s surge of migrants were coming increasingly from Democratic politicians, in California, Illinois and New York — not just from MAGA Republicans in Texas and Florida. The White House concluded it wasn’t a left-right issue, but one of governing or not governing.

The administration’s new approach to immigration began last spring, with a rush of Ukrainian refugees, a thousand a day, trying to cross the Mexico border. To stem this chaotic flow, the administration created an online application process, and the number of illegal entries each day fell to single digits. A similar application process was developed in October for Venezuelan refugees, whose numbers had surged to 1,500 a day. That has since fallen into the low hundreds.

In politics, you usually get credit for telling the faithful what they want to hear. But that has it backward. Good government often means upsetting powerful constituencies and choosing a path that might be unpopular but is still correct. I don’t want to oversell Biden’s immigration plan. It’s not going to fix our shattered system. But it recognizes that people aren’t morally defective if they demand a more secure and effective border policy.

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