Unmuted: Meanwhile, at the Border…

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A group of migrants wearing T-shirts that read, “Biden, please let us in,” kneel and pray at the border crossing on March 2, 2021 in San Ysidro, Mexico. The group gathered and marched up to the border post to petition the new U.S. administration for asylum. U.S. Border Patrol (CPB) agents conducted a heavier operation at the border crossing with the goal of preventing a stampede. (Stringer/dpa via ZUMA Press/TNS)

Joe Biden has been in office for about six weeks. He has already signed a slew of executive orders reversing many atrocious Trump-era policies. But any sense of profound relief or celebration at having a sane person in the White House cannot eclipse the immense humanitarian crisis that is the U.S. immigration system.

“Immigration is an issue that can consume a presidency,” Stef W. Kight wrote in a recent article for AXIOS. “It’s intensely and poisonously partisan. It’s complicated. And the lives and welfare of vulnerable children hang in the balance.”

In recent weeks, thousands of families have surged towards the Southwestern border, expecting a friendlier reception by the United States. This is in part because of a Mexican policy that will make it harder for the U.S. to expel immigrants and in part because Biden is rolling back many of Trump’s insular immigration policies. The New York Times reported that, since Biden’s inauguration, new families have been collecting in Mexican border towns, sleeping in the streets, under bridges and in dry ditches. 

Meanwhile, on the Texas side of the border, hundreds of migrant children wait in detention centers to be reunited with their parents, who may never be found. Thousands more children have been detained, straining the facilities to capacity.  President Biden now shoulders this enormous crisis.

Former President Trump gutted the U.S. immigration system. He separated children from their parents at the border. He banned people from primarily Muslim countries from coming into the U.S. He cut in half the number of legal immigrants the U.S. would accept. He directed the construction of hundreds of miles of largely-needless new barrier wall on the United States-Mexico border.

Biden came into office promising a much kinder policy towards immigrants. His plan for “securing our values as a nation of immigrants” promises to, among other things, “take urgent action to undo Trump’s damage and reclaim America’s values.” Happily, he has begun to deliver. To date, he has signed two executive orders pertaining to immigration, one of which extends additional protections to people seeking safety under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He, along with Democratic leadership, introduced a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants. On February 23, more than 1,000 people detained after crossing the border have been released into the U.S. in a reversal of the Trump administration’s strict stance on detainment. 

But there’s more to do. Biden has left in place a Trump policy that allows the U.S. to turn immigrants away due to the pandemic. That could mean that many would-be immigrants are left living in Mexican border towns, some of which place them at significant risk of being targeted by organized criminal groups.  To make matters worse, CNN reported that as of last Tuesday, the Border Patrol had more than 1,300 children in custody waiting for placement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 300 more than the day before. As of Feb. 21, HHS itself had about 7,000 children in custody — functioning at over 90% capacity. 

Also, NBC News reports that the parents of 506 migrant children who U.S. officials separated at the border still have not been found. The parents of about 63% of these children are likely to have been deported. Some of them have now been without their parents for several years. It is astonishing that any modern U.S. government could be responsible for creating, and continuing, such an abominable humanitarian crisis. 

President Biden must commit to bringing these deported parents back into the U.S now, to seek asylum and reconnect with their children. Although we may not be able to undo 100% of the damage, we have an ethical responsibility to try. We need to support the work of Biden’s new task force dedicated to this effort. We also need to keep up pressure on our elected representatives so this remains part of the political discourse. We cannot let it fall to the back burner.

Fixing the damage that the past president left is no easy task, and Joe Biden is no miracle worker. He’s only six weeks into his presidency, after all.  But he cannot lose sight of this looming disaster. He must undo Trump’s horrific policies, reunite families and once again turn the U.S. into a land for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”