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.