U.S. President Joe Biden is drawing political wrath from every direction over how he’s been handling things at the Mexican border. Republicans say Biden has caused “a humanitarian crisis and chaos” there, while members of his administrations have resigned over the government’s recent deportations of migrants, including Haitian asylum-seekers, in a continuation of a Trump-era policy under the public-health law “Title 42.” Last month, the president ended up having to condemn the apparent mistreatment of migrant families by Border Patrol agents on horseback. What’s the Biden administration doing at the U.S.-Mexico border—and with its approach to immigration as a whole?

Theresa Cardinal Brown is the managing director for immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. Brown describes Biden’s overall immigration policy as progressive, favoring reforms, such as a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, that make it easier for families to immigrate to America and open up systems for refugees and asylum seekers. At the same time, Brown says, Biden is skeptical of employment-based immigration, and he’s sending mixed messages at the border, where the new paradigm he promised isn’t yet materializing. He wants to project an orderly and humane approach, but for now, he’s focused on deterrence and sticking with the Title 42 policy, even as it faces opposition from human-rights and immigration groups—and, Brown thinks, is “on its last legs.” She believes that the policy is likely to face legal and logistical challenges, with Mexico more and more unwilling to take back migrants who’ve gone to the U.S. Meanwhile, Republicans are already trying to use “Biden’s border crisis” against him before the 2022 midterm elections, and progressive Democrats are insisting that a failure to enact immigration reform would have significant electoral consequences for their party. If nothing else, Biden’s navigation of these issues will determine how fully the United States breaks from the Trump years, when the American president made opposition to immigration central to his politics.

Graham Vyse: What explains the current situation at the border?

Theresa Cardinal Brown: Since an earthquake in Haiti in 2010, thousands of Haitians have been living and working in South America, in countries like Brazil and Chile, but their situation became less tenable with the rise of COVID. They couldn’t find jobs, so they started coming north, like other immigrants trying to figure out how to survive.

The U.S. government meanwhile granted something called Temporary Protected Status, which gives people already in the U.S. protection from deportation if something were going on in their home country—a natural disaster, civil strife, a pandemic—that made it difficult for them to go back to it. The Biden administration granted this status to Haiti in July.

Vyse: How do you see the Biden administration’s response to the arrival of these Haitians?

Brown: They carried over the number-one policy that the Trump administration used to manage the border, Title 42—a CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] order that said, We’re not even going to allow you to apply for an immigration case, because of the pandemic. We’re just going to expel you back to Mexico or whatever country you came from. That’s been the predominant means of dealing with people arriving at the border since March 2020, and that’s the primary means the Biden administration wanted to use in dealing with Haitian arrivals.

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