Biden faces a border crisis.

Plus, what should Democrats prioritize now?
Isaac Saul Mar 16, 2021
This is Tangle, an independent politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then my take. If you’re not already a subscriber, please click the blue button below to join. Thanks!

Subscribe now

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

What’s happening on the border. Plus, a question about what Democrats should prioritize.

Central American migrants find quarter in southern Mexico. Photo: Peter Haden


A few readers reported that yesterday’s newsletter went to their spam folder. If you didn’t get a newsletter, search “Tangle” and then be sure to mark our email as important or star it. You can find yesterday’s edition on the gun control legislation passed by clicking here.

Relatedly, I mentioned yesterday that I took the unusual step of sending in correction requests to both The Washington Examiner and the The Wall Street Journal for inaccurately reporting that the gun control bills passed by Democrats would prevent gifting guns to family or loans to hunters or those in danger. The text of the bill, which I read, made it clear that there were exemptions in those cases. I promised I’d update you. The Washington Examiner promptly issued a correction in its piece by removing the language I cited, which was written by Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Kat Cammack (R-FL):

The Wall Street Journal has not replied to my request.

Quick hits.

  1. Two men were arrested and charged for the assault of Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who died following the January 6th riots. Original reports suggested Sicknick was injured with a fire extinguisher, though an investigation found the men used a chemical spray in the alleged attack. It’s still unclear what caused his death, and the District of Columbia medical examiner’s office has yet to release additional information. (Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  2. Moderna has begun vaccine trials in children as young as six years old. Meanwhile, regulators in Europe say they are “firmly convinced” the benefits of taking the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine outweigh the risks after reports of blood clotting in some patients. (The Washington Post)
  3. Mississippi became the second state to open its vaccine eligibility to all adults yesterday. The first was Alaska. (The Hill)
  4. China and Russia are uniting in space. The two countries joined an agreement last week to commit to space exploration together, and China is expanding its presence to challenge Amazon and SpaceX in providing satellite-driven internet. (Axios)
  5. The U.S. Senate confirmed New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as secretary of the Interior yesterday, making her the first Native American to ever lead a U.S. Cabinet agency. In her role, she’ll oversee 500 million acres of public land and federal waters, as well as 1.9 million Native people living in the U.S. (The New York Times)

What D.C. is talking about.

The southern border. Under current U.S. policy, unaccompanied migrant children who are taken into custody at the U.S. border are not allowed to stay in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) for more than 72 hours. Once those three days pass, they are supposed to be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services, where they are housed with family, sponsors or in a shelter and oftentimes scheduled to return for a court hearing to process their asylum cases.

U.S. law gives these migrants a legal right to come here: “You may apply for asylum with USCIS as an unaccompanied minor if you [a]re under 18 years old, [h]ave no lawful immigration status in the United States, [and h]ave no parent or legal guardian in the United States available to provide care and physical custody.”

However, facilities at the border are currently being overwhelmed. More than 29,000 children have been apprehended while crossing the border since October 1st, the beginning of the 2021 fiscal year, according to The Wall Street Journal. During the entire 2020 fiscal year, about 30,000 children crossed the border with their families. Last month alone the number exceeded 9,000, an increase of 63% from January. On March 12th, the Associated Press reported that Border Patrol agents had more than 3,000 migrant children in custody, a record high, with the figure climbing daily and many exceeding the standard 72 hours allowed in custody. The full picture is just as concerning, according to The Washington Post:

Border arrests and detentions during the final months of the Trump presidency rose to some of the highest levels in a decade, but illegal crossings have skyrocketed since Biden took office. In February, detentions topped 100,000, a 28 percent increase from the previous month, and March is on pace for an even larger surge, with more than 4,000 border apprehensions each day, according to the latest U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures.

In the last month, there has been growing concern about the treatment of unaccompanied minors who are crossing the border and calls for action to slow down the wave of immigrants trying to enter the U.S. The Biden administration announced the opening of two new emergency shelters, one in Midland, Texas, and the other in Dallas, designed to house thousands of children before they are moved to permanent shelters or reunited with family.

While the Biden administration has resisted describing the situation on the border as a crisis or emergency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has also been activated to find and expand facilities for the children while many adults and accompanied minors will be returned to Mexico. Hundreds of immigrant children have been detained in a tent facility in Houston. Last week, the Biden administration denied access to lawyers from the National Center for Youth Law who wanted to observe the conditions in the tent facility.

Under Trump, the CBP had a policy called Title 42 to expedite deportations as a public health policy related to coronavirus. The Biden administration exempted teens and children from that policy, meaning they no longer face the threat of immediate deportation.

The left and right have reacted to the news by attacking Biden’s policies from two different angles and calling both for reforms and for a return to some of the Trump-era policies.

What the right is saying.

The right says Biden needs to beef up border security and consider reinstating Trump policies that succeeded in keeping the border under control.

Henry Olsen wrote that America “permits immigration with a complicated system favoring family reunification over jobs skills,” with more than one million people “given legal permanent resident status annually” and “millions more admitted to the country temporarily under student and employment-based visas.”

“The big dispute is over the millions of people who are undocumented, many of whom crossed the southern border illegally,” he wrote. “As of 2017, roughly 10.5 million people were estimated to be in this category… The number of people trying to illegally enter the country skyrocketed in 2019, with more than 1 million apprehended in their attempts for the first time since 2008. Roughly 800,000 of these people come from just four countries: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

“Some of these people are legitimate refugees who are eligible to settle in the United States, but many want to come here for economic reasons,” he added. “Like any people, they are susceptible to incentives. Trump-era crackdowns slowed illegal migration because people reasonably concluded that they had less chance of remaining in the country. The signals from President Biden that he intends to dismantle those initiatives have sent the opposite message: The United States is opening to migrants. That, not any underlying change in conditions in their countries, is why the border is being flooded.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said Biden’s decision to exempt children from an emergency COVID-19 order that expels migrants is one of a few policy decisions causing the new surge.

“Under the Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, asylum seekers waited in Mexico for their cases to be adjudicated by U.S. immigration courts,” they added. “The Biden Administration ended this policy and has begun admitting asylum seekers with pending cases no matter how far-fetched the claims. Migrants can seek permission to work after filing asylum applications. The wait for an asylum tribunal hearing can be years, literally, and many applicants never bother to show up… The clear signal to migrants, and to the human smugglers who run people across the border, is that now is the time to come to America. That signal was magnified by the White House message that it wants to legalize the 11 million or so undocumented migrants already in the U.S. with a fast track to citizenship.”

In The American Spectator, Ken Sondik said that dismantling the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) — also known as the “remain in Mexico” policy — has upended the border.

“Many economic migrants have gained access to the U.S. by saying a few ‘magic’ asylum words at the border,” Sondik wrote. “MPP changed this. Migrants stayed in Mexico until their full asylum hearings (unaccompanied minors are exempt from the protocols), which the administration was able to provide in months as opposed to years by setting up immigration courts at the border. Guess what happened when word got out that folks weren’t being released into the interior of the country? The migrant flows slowed substantially… Whereas family separation was a mistake and was quickly halted, MPP was a sensible, humane, and helpful program.

“But instead of continuing it and tweaking if deemed necessary, Joe Biden has renounced it — a decision that has contributed mightily to the current humanitarian crisis.”

What the left is saying.

The left says Biden needs to stay the course on humane policy, mitigate damage being done to migrant children and push for lasting, long-term reform.

The Houston Chronicle editorial board said: “President Biden faces a challenge that demands striking a balance between border enforcement and humanitarian concern, between slamming the door and living up to America’s reputation as a beacon for the oppressed.”

“The simplistic answer to why shelters are overrun is that the Biden administration has reversed President Trump’s get-tough immigration policies, including a reversal of a pandemic plan that turned away all immigrants at the border,” the board said. “The reality is that immigrant kids did not stop coming to the border during the last four years. As late as May 2019, more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors were detained. Using COVID as an excuse, Trump shut down the border, but nothing changed in Central America. If anything, the pandemic has made a dire situation worse, pushing out immigrants looking for relief.”

“While Trump’s emergency health order remains for most other illegal border-crossers, an exception was made in January for unaccompanied children,” it added. “Lifting a bad policy that left kids to fend for themselves in border cities, oftentimes in dangerous conditions, was a good call by the administration, but no good deed comes without consequences.”

In a CNN op-ed, Raul Reyeswrote that it’s clear the Biden administration is “taking a more humane approach to immigration.”

“He has ordered the reunification of children separated from their families during the previous administration. He has committed more aid to Central American countries, where many of these minors are coming from, provided certain conditions of good governance are met. And he is restarting the Central American Minors Program, which allows some migrant parents to apply to bring their children here to join them, on a two-year renewable basis. These are all positive and encouraging steps.”

Still, though, Reyes says we need an “overhaul” of how we treat migrant children. “In the short-term, this will require a tremendous expansion of federal efforts to process them. FEMA should be enlisted to help with the intake of children, and then local governments and community-based organizations should be enlisted as partners to help secure safe placements. Instead of investing in detention, the government should consider investing more resources in charities and nonprofit groups that want to help migrants.”

In The New Republic, Hilary Beaumont said Biden is continuing the ghoulish, bipartisan tradition of death at the southern border.

“More than 7,800 migrants died in the U.S. borderlands between 1998 and 2019, according to Customs and Border Protection, although this is an undercount of the true number,” she wrote. “In Arizona, human remains found by the group Humane Borders reached a seven-year high amid a climate change–fueled megadrought in the southern U.S… President Joe Biden has promised to tackle climate change, study the root causes of migration from Central America, and provide a path to citizenship for undocumented people. But his security proposals for the southern border are largely a continuation of prevention through deterrence, a bipartisan legacy of accepting mass death as the price of ‘border security.’”

My take.

In some ways, this is the worst-case scenario for Biden. You have the progressive left hammering you for the conditions migrants are living in. You have the moderate Democrats concerned about the political damage and criticizing you for mishandling a relatively stable situation you inherited. And you have Republicans talking about nothing else but the fact there’s a crisis on the border, with thousands of kids in government custody, thousands more coming soon, and a wave, surge, rush or “invasion” of immigrants — all words they use in the hope voters will turn out in 2022.

Despite being hammered by both sides, not everything Biden has done is bad. His government is working to reunify children still separated from their parents during Trump’s term. He has restarted a sensible program that allows migrant parents who are here legally to apply to bring their children here, too. Strategically, opening more shelters and activating FEMA are also smart moves. I’m not really sure what progressives would have him do — you can’t just release unaccompanied kids into the U.S. interior with no processing and no plan, you can’t keep them in Border Patrol’s custody, and I don’t think anyone wants children to be sent back to Mexico or their home countries alone.

However loathe the left is to admit it, the truth is our asylum program is out of control and needs serious reform. As a Jew, I certainly respect its origins: it was created in large part as a moral response after America refused asylum to my ancestors while they were being annihilated by the Nazis in Europe. The intent was to create a safe haven for victims of political, religious and ethnic discrimination. But, as Fareed Zakaria put it, the sad reality is that “the vast majority of people entering the southern border are really traditional migrants, fleeing poverty and violence.”

Amidst all the cruel and inhumane policies orchestrated by Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy was one of the most practical immigration measures he took. The deal was delivered with the same threats and divisive undertones that much of Trump’s posture toward Mexico and migrants had — but it was good policy.

It allowed us more time to process migrants, created disincentives for those who didn’t think their asylum cases would hold up in front of a judge, and eased the burden on our facilities and border patrol agents. It exempted unaccompanied minors, created partnerships with countries across South America to return those who didn’t qualify, brought more judges and immigration processing to the border, and even allowed the U.S. to send some Honduran and Salvadoran migrants to Guatemala as an alternative.

Biden’s decision to undo it was a mistake — and it’s part of what’s costing him dearly now. Of course, we saw a similar border surge in 2019 and again toward the end of Trump’s presidency, a reminder that the remain in Mexico policy alone, and Trump’s immigration posture more broadly, were not the answers.

Since Bill Clinton, every president has been largely stymied by the dynamics of our southern border. Once again, we need actual, comprehensive immigration reform. I’ve said here before I support a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here — an empathetic, economically sound and long-term fix for many of our problems.

We need more judges to process more asylum cases more quickly, and we need reforms that make it clear the system is not a wide-open door. We need to return to some of the policies of the Trump administration to coordinate better with Mexico and our Central American neighbors. But we also need to continue to resist draconian, inhumane policies that harm innocent men, women and children.

And we need to remember why people are trying to come here in the first place, literally risking life and limb, handing over their life savings to a smuggler or risking separation from their families, often walking days or weeks through some of the most treacherous terrain on the planet: They want a better life. They want opportunities to work. They want safety. These wishes aren’t crimes, they’re purely human, and we need to remember that central reality whenever chance we get.

Your questions, answered.

Q: What do you think the Democrats should focus on now that they have nominal control of the government? Additionally, how much do you think they should work with the Republican Party versus simply forcing the issue without their input?

— Jorge T., Pittsburgh, PA

Tangle: So far, I think Biden’s policy focus is where it should be. There’s no doubt the #1 priority for most Americans is bringing an end to the pandemic. The $1.9 trillion piece of legislation should, conceivably, help do that and a whole lot more. Getting kids back to school is the most pressing issue, second only to controlling the pandemic by getting vaccinations done. Obviously, given the content of this issue, we’re also about to hear a lot more about immigration. But an overhaul is unlikely to even get out of the House right now, let alone clear the Senate.

The coronavirus package greatly expanded Obamacare and also put pressures on States to expand Medicaid, though some — like Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves — are inconceivably turning down millions of federal dollars to offer more comprehensive health care to their residents. Biden managed to get some pretty serious health care reforms into the stimulus bill, and I wouldn’t imagine much more action is needed there for a little while.

The obvious next step is “infrastructure,” which is becoming a liberal code-word for climate change policy and also becoming a lot less bipartisan than some people think. I don’t see any way Biden gets another few trillion dollars passed as he hopes, but I know our infrastructure is crumbling, I do believe climate change is a deadly threat to the planet (and our kids and grandkids), and it’s clear America is due for a rebuild in so many places it’s tough to list them all. Anyone who has flown, driven or used public transportation in a few cities or rural areas in this country in the last decade can attest to that.

As I said yesterday, I feel comfortable with the two gun control bills passed by Democrats, though I’m not sure they’d do much of anything in either direction on their own. I think their odds are low in the Senate, but crazier things have happened.

My personal wish is for the next focus to be criminal justice reform. It’s probably the issue I’m most “left” on (though Libertarians have been pushing it for decades and conservatives are getting on board, too), so a Democratic presidency and Democratic control of Congress is an opportunity to address the fact we lock more human beings in cages than any other country on the planet. Trump made progress, and Biden has an opportunity to continue it. I’d love to see the Biden administration pursue more reforms to mandatory sentencing, reduce punishments for drug crimes, abolish automatic cash bail, and invest in programs to lower the recidivism rate for prisoners. Increasing police accountability and data sharing practices across departments is obviously a pressing issue for liberals, and I believe a good way to improve departments nationwide, so I’d be thrilled to see any progress there too.

As for working with Republicans, the obvious answer is yes. They have to. The other options are abolishing the filibuster, which I’ve argued would boomerang and do long-term damage to the country, or face nothing but opposition. I think there are serious openings for lasting positive legislation around criminal justice reform, infrastructure and climate change — all with a healthy number of Republicans on board.

A story that matters.

The family that owns OxyContin agreed to pay $4.28 billion in damages — a larger sum than previously reported — in an effort to resolve lawsuits over its role in fueling the opioid epidemic. The Sackler family’s payments were filed in a U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York in an effort to get Purdue Pharma out of chapter 11. In 2019, it had agreed to pay $3 billion with the promise of another $1.5 billion contingent on the sale of its international business. The new agreement will distribute money to opioid abatement programs across the U.S., and could pave the way for further litigation against distributors of opioids who concealed or downplayed the addictive risks. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)


  • 1.35 million. The number of travelers screened by the TSA at airports on Friday, the highest since March 15th, 2020.
  • $100 million. The amount of money promised by the Jesuit order of Catholic priests in an effort to “atone for slavery.”
  • 3%. The drop in retail sales in the month of February.
  • $12 billion. The amount of money Democrats are asking for to help boost the U.S. international affairs budget.
  • 71.1 million. The number of Americans who have now received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

Don’t forget…

If you’re already a subscriber, please consider sharing this newsletter by forwarding it to friends or posting about Tangle on social media.

If you’re not, and you appreciate the way Tangle balances the news, and our attempts at making things more interesting, informative and easier to digest, please consider becoming a subscriber.

For $4.16/month, you get Friday editions that include original reporting, deep dives, interviews, personal essays and more. We keep the vast majority of our content free out of a fundamental belief that reliable news shouldn’t be behind a paywall — but we rely on reader support to continue to grow.

Subscribe now

Have a nice day.

When people move, they typically throw out their leftover food. Adam Lowy, who had been working for his family’s moving company, noticed the trend in 2009. He started asking people if they wanted him to donate their non-perishable items, to which many people agreed. So he turned it into a full-fledged program. Since then, he’s helped deliver 20 million pounds of food to local food banks, and provided 17 million meals to individuals in need. Now, his organization Move for Hunger has a network of 1,000 moving companies in every state and Canada to help donate otherwise wasted food. (Today)


Only paid subscribers can comment.
Please subscribe or sign in to join the conversation.

Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

Great! You've successfully subscribed.
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.