During his tenure as president, Donald Trump adopted a tough on illegal immigration policy—largely via executive orders—that drew the constant ire of his critics. Border patrol agents intercepted many who crossed the southern border illegally, including youths. Often authorities separated such children from their families and placed them in crowded detention centers—run by those who failed to “systematically hold facilities accountable,” according to a recent report.
It was not one of America’s finest moments, and it was a strange move for Republicans who allege to support fiscal responsibility and pro-family values. Yet these immigration policies do not appear to be particularly cost effective compared to some alternatives, and unnecessarily splitting up families seems to fail any pro-family litmus test.
But has anything substantive really changed with the Biden administration?
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) recently released sobering pictures of immigrant youths being locked up in detainment facilities under the Biden administration—forcing the president’s spokesperson to answer some uncomfortable questions. This infuriated many on the political left, and understandably.
One Texas Democrat insider who supported the Biden campaign exclaimed, “I have chosen to not allow myself to get into my feelings about how there are still these detention centers being popped up by this administration because it makes me very, very angry.” Meanwhile, Republicans pounced on the news and accused President Joe Biden of overt hypocrisy. They claimed that he is housing children in the same manner that Trump did, which spurred the Democrats’ ridicule.
While there are some marked differences between the Trump and Biden immigration policies, the immediate response from the current administration and much of the media has been bizarre. They’ve claimed that Biden’s treatment of migrant youths is incomparable to the Trump “kids in cages” fiasco because—get a load of this—they don’t use chain link fencing. This distinction is one of semantics. In fact, I am willing to bet that those in custody see little contrast between being locked in a room or locked behind a fence.
To be fair, the government has not separated these children from their families—they were already separated from them—nor will it immediately deport them, which you might have expected under Trump. Nevertheless, they’re virtually imprisoned for the time being. “Under federal law,” the Associated Press explained, “children arriving at the border without parents should be transferred within three days from U.S. Border Patrol custody to long-term facilities run by U.S. Health and Human Services until they can be released to family members or sponsors.”
Due to this law and Biden’s policy, these children are stuck for up to three days in increasingly crowded detention centers, and matters seem poised to grow more challenging. As it stands, 14,000 migrantsare being held in federal facilities; agents stopped some 100,000 at the Mexican border in February alone; and there are few signs of the pace subsiding. This is only giving partisans fodder to decry Biden’s leadership, but there’s common ground here: Both Democrats and Republicans—to some degree—have taken turns criticizing the treatment of migrant youths and sniping at their ideological opponents.
So, what’s the path forward? I do not support unregulated, open borders, but the fact that many want to relocate to the United States isn’t a bad thing. It’s representative of the promise of America. However, it is beyond clear that the status quo simply isn’t working. For once, there seems to be some consensus from actors on the political left and right that these children do not belong in cages, but the manner of achieving change is important.
As the Biden and Trump administrations have shown, they are more than pleased to rule by fiat. In mere months, Biden has issued 37 executive orders, and in one term, Trump promulgated 220. This is inconsistent with our republican form of government, and such kingly decrees, including those related to immigration, are often temporary, hyper-partisan and unvetted by Congress.
Instead of relying on executive orders, Republicans and Democrats in Congress need to negotiate a fully vetted, lasting compromise. To be fair, it won’t be easy in D.C.’s hyper-partisan environment, but they can begin by reviewing current immigration policies that make it prohibitively difficult to work in the United States. After all, making a living is the reason so many immigrants wish to come here.
So, if access to work visas is expanded and the process to obtain them is streamlined, then it stands to reason that fewer people, including youths, will attempt to cross the border illegally—easing the problem and the number of children in custody. Of course, this won’t entirely end illegal border crossings of youths, but given the disdain for the temporary incarceration of migrant children, Congress should be able to settle on an improved manner of treating kids, while instilling greater accountability in detainment facility managers.
Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.