Leadership qualities of public officials become most clear when issues demand a response that is both effective and just. The migrant children at the southern border are the headline-grabbing example of which I write. President Biden is the one making the point about such leadership. He did so emphatically during last week’s White House Press Conference.
The only people we’re not going to let sitting there on the other side of the Rio Grande by themselves with no help are children.
And then minutes later he added this statement.
Well, look, the idea that I’m going to say — which I would never do — “if an unaccompanied child ends up at the border, we’re just going to let him starve to death and stay on the other side” — no previous administration did that either, except Trump. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it.
It does not take anyone more than 30 seconds to see the way those who oppose migrants, those who oppose Democrats, and even more so those who oppose an elected Democratic president will play this issue. Biden knows full well the level of opposition that will gain steam and get much louder over the border issue. But standing up to such predictable reactions also is a part of being a leader.
But here is the fact to not forget.
The border issue does not boil down neatly to political rhetoric or find a resolution in policies that were aimed at only increasing the level of misery to a point that fewer would wish to attempt entry to the nation. If that were a workable policy the past four years would be viewed as a smashing success. But we know that time produced a colossal mess.
This weekend The New Yorker has a tremendous column by Jonathan Blitzer that hits on some points that are central to grasping the ‘lay of the land’ and how leadership will be required from the White House moving forward. Three fast paragraphs of that column are below.
Biden faces another burden: by the time Trump left office, he had effectively ended the practice of asylum and left the most vulnerable people to their own devices. Some seventy thousand asylum seekers were forced to wait indefinitely in Mexico, under a policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols. Trump also, in the name of a dubious public-health order issued last March, turned away nearly everyone who sought asylum at the border, including some sixteen thousand children and thirty-four thousand families. That order had the perverse effect of leading people to try to cross multiple times; in the past year, there have been more than five hundred thousand expulsions. Biden planned to phase the asylum program back in gradually, partly for operational reasons and partly for political ones. If the Administration appeared to be floundering, it would give Republicans an opening to attack its broader agenda, which includes legislation to expand the legal immigration system and to provide a path to citizenship for eleven million undocumented immigrants already living in this country.
The number of unaccompanied children, however, has exceeded the government’s ability to move them into the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for placing them with family sponsors. The priority is to keep them from languishing in the holding cells run by the Department of Homeland Security; by law, children are not supposed to be in such facilities for more than seventy-two hours. But the H.H.S. shelters are almost at capacity. Nine emergency shelters have been set up, two in convention centers in Dallas and San Diego, yet the average amount of time that many children are spending in D.H.S. facilities is almost twice the legal limit. “We’re providing for the space again to be able to get these kids out,” Biden said on Thursday, adding that he had “used all the resources available” to free up five thousand more beds, at a Texas military base.
The Administration has rightly said that the problem needs to be addressed at the source. To do that, it intends to provide more aid to Central America, and to target it in ways that circumvent corrupt officials. The White House also wants to restart a program begun under Obama, and ended by Trump, to process children as refugees in their home countries, and to set up regional facilities to expedite their legal claims before the children reach the border. The plans are ambitious and still largely untested, and, as Biden admitted, they will take time—years, not months—to implement.
Part of the leadership demands now upon Biden is to make sure the communications efforts from the White House are at their peak performance as it is a requirement for the facts of the border issue to be as robust as the partisan sniping from Republicans.
And I have one more thought on this matter, which is a moral one at the border.
It is imperative that Biden and his fellow Democrats remain resolved to defend the interests of these children. It would be unacceptable to allow the unprincipled Republicans (Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson to name but two) who regard politics, rather than responsible governing, to in any way succeed.
This fight is about our ideals as a nation. Such a fight demands leadership, of the type Biden brings to his office.
And so it goes.