The phantom danger of being judged soft on children at the border

Republicans may be spreading fear, but not all Americans are buying it

Republicans may be spreading every conceivable fear about unaccompanied children at the border, but there’s no
guarantee they will make immigration a defining issue in the 2022 midterms, Shapiro writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Republicans may be spreading every conceivable fear about unaccompanied children at the border, but there’s no guarantee they will make immigration a defining issue in the 2022 midterms, Shapiro writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 23, 2021 at 6:00am

Presidents don’t choose what awaits them in the Oval Office, as everything that happens on their watch — the good, the bad and the ugly — becomes part of their political legacy.

In an ideal world, Joe Biden could have dealt with the nation’s southern border on his own pace after he had a full team in place at the Department of Homeland Security and the government had time to develop the infrastructure to erase the heartless horrors of the Donald Trump years.

But life and politics don’t work like that.

Biden now has a crisis on his hands, even though White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki resists using that word. Over the next few days, Psaki will probably work her way through the thesaurus from “challenge” to “critical juncture” in an attempt to describe the influx of unaccompanied children at the border.

Any chance that the Biden administration could play for time disappeared Monday when Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar released disturbing photographs of migrant children crowded into tents at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas.

That followed another Democrat, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, tweeting about seeing at the border a 13-year-old girl sobbing as she explained “thru a translator how terrified she was, having been separated from her grandmother and without her parents.”

The Biden administration is desperately urging would-be political asylum seekers to wait. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas toured the Sunday shows repeating this mantra: “The message is quite clear, do not come.”

But what matters are not the words that Biden officials say on national television, or even the language that the president himself will deploy in his Thursday news conference, but the reality. And the spin-proof truth is that everyone south of the Rio Grande knows that Trump with his hateful policies and his disdain for all immigrants who aren’t from, say, Norway is no longer president.

Just pause for a second to imagine the fears that have inspired parents, mostly from Central America, to take the most wrenching step of all — voluntarily separating themselves from their children. Picture the tearful goodbyes as these children are sent across the border protected by nothing more than a slip of paper with the American phone number of a relative or a friend.

This is not a choice that parents would make willingly unless they were desperate.

Even as government facilities are overrun by the arrival of an estimated 500 unaccompanied minors per day, this migration also serves as a backhanded tribute to America’s long tradition of humanitarianism. There is a sense that these children, for all the disarray at the border, will be treated kindly by a nation that is still, despite the Trump years, a beacon to the world.

Most Americans are the descendants of immigrants whose ancestors voluntarily chose to cross oceans and rivers to come here. My own great-grandfather, Hymen Bernstein, arrived in 1868 after 32 days below decks on an old-fashioned clipper ship because he couldn’t afford passage on a modern steamship. This is an American story shared in tens of millions of households.

That heritage was best expressed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1938 when he told the blue-blooded would-be aristocrats of the Daughters of the American Revolution, “Remember always that you and I especially are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

In an America true to its ideals, a bipartisan political structure, built on goodwill, would be working to lessen the crisis on our southern border. There would be a recognition that, despite the need for long-term solutions, the immediate surge north is inevitable given the instability and violence that wrack Central America. 

But (news flash) immigration has been weaponized in politics for decades. That was true long before Trump began his 2015 campaign by viciously and falsely claiming that rapists were pouring across the border from Mexico. 

We all know the rough contours of what will happen in politics in the next few weeks. Fox News and xenophobic Republicans will spread every conceivable fear about unaccompanied children allowed to cross the border. They will be portrayed as COVID-19 carriers, gang members, drug mules and the pawns of child traffickers. 

Congress is filled with those who fear that any vote or statement based on compassion will be turned in an attack ad in the fall of 2022. For what could be worse in politics than being accused of being soft on children?

Short-term measures are desperately needed, from safe places to house unaccompanied children who appear at the border to providing enough immigration judges to make prompt, but fair, decisions on legal requests for asylum. 

That said, the Biden administration is not doing itself any favors by trying to manage the news by barring even a limited pool of reporters from seeing the temporary arrangements for taking care of these children. Too often in politics the efforts to avoid a few days of bad coverage end up deepening a crisis. And a crisis it remains no matter what word games the Biden team insists on playing. 

With so much else going on in American life, from the pandemic to the $1.9 trillion economic recovery package, there is no guarantee that immigration will become a defining issue in the 2022 campaign — no matter how hard the Republicans try to ape Trump’s demonization of refugees. 

And maybe the weeks ahead will prove that there is a powerful, but hitherto hidden, political constituency in America supporting humane treatment for the 500 frightened, tearful and confused children who are arriving at the border each day. 

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.