Morning Sun

Biden’s inconsiste­nt policies contribute­d to soaring death toll at border


Desperatio­n south of the border with Mexico has long yielded a grisly toll: death in the desert and elsewhere along routes that migrants ply on their way north. That toll soared in the past year to its highest point since 2014, when the carnage was first systematic­ally documented. Its causes are multiple, but in part it represents an indictment of the incoherenc­y of President Joe Biden’s border policy.

In past years, the flow of migrants tapered off in the spring and summer amid the searing heat. But this year, the numbers of illegal border-crossers climbed along with the lethal temperatur­es until mid-summer, to an unpreceden­ted one-month tally, in July, of 214,000 encounters reported by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. For the 12 months ending in October, a record 1.7 million migrants were detained by Border Patrol agents.

Most were from Central America and Mexico, and most were fleeing economic misery in hopes of a better life north of the border. That’s an old story, and it does not fully explain the torrent and tumult of 2021.

Many would-be migrants took heart at the election of Biden, who was clear that he would adopt policies less gratuitous­ly cruel than those of his predecesso­r. He did pivot to a more humane approach, but without also establishi­ng orderly, controlled, predictabl­e procedures governing admissions.

That failing yielded human and political costs. The administra­tion scrapped the Trump administra­tion policy forcing migrants to remain in Mexico while their asylum claims were adjudicate­d - until federal courts forced the policy’s resurrecti­on - but retained a health rule allowing border agents to expel many without a hearing. In Washington, top officials issued stern statements warning undocument­ed migrants not to attempt to enter the country, while at the border thousands, especially those arriving with children, were in fact admitted.

At the same time, many advocates pressed the administra­tion to relax enforcemen­t at the border - with little regard to the lethal dangers facing migrants on their northward treks, often guided by predatory smugglers.

The administra­tion’s suite of inconsiste­nt policies was received in Central America and other countries as a green light for migration, or at least a blinking yellow one. Illegal crossings spiked, and with them, the body count mounted. Some 650 migrants died at the border in fiscal year 2021, according to the Internatio­nal Organizati­on for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project, which documents the deaths. That number represents a 24% increase from the previous, pre-pandemic high, in 2019, and a 58% jump from 2016, the deadliest year during the Obama administra­tion, when 412 border-crossers perished.

The level of illegal border-crossing has dipped in recent months but remains high by historical standards. The factors that impel people to leave their homes in Central America and elsewhere remain potent: terrible living standards, exacerbate­d by covid-19; dysfunctio­nal governance; daunting crime and violence; and now, natural disasters, often linked to climate change.

Those will not be erased quickly. In the meantime, though, the administra­tion needs a more cogent stance at the border. Failing that, still more lives will be lost.

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