Biden's team sends mixed messages to migrant caravan


Migrants trekking across Mexico as part of the new caravan headed toward the U.S. could be forgiven for confusion over what the Biden administration is telling them.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said this spring that the message to those looking to jump the border wasn’t not to come at all, but rather just don’t do it now. He said to wait until the U.S. was ready to welcome people.

But over the summer, Vice President Kamala D. Harris was more forceful during a trip to Guatemala, saying flatly, “Do not come.”

As the season changes to fall, Attorney General Merrick Garland had a new take this week.

The country’s top law enforcement official first said they shouldn’t come, then clarified and said they actually can, if they are planning to make asylum claims.

“It depends on why they are coming,” he told senators.

Nine months into the new administration, President Biden and his team are still struggling with their message to millions of would-be migrants in Mexico, Central America and beyond who are eyeing an attempt to sneak across the southern border.

The confusion comes at a time when between 3,000 and 6,000 migrants are headed north on foot across Mexico in a single caravan. They left Mexico‘s southern border city of Tapachula last weekend and had made it only about 36 miles over the first five days, reported Ali Bradley, a journalist covering the migrants.

Made up chiefly of migrants from Central America, South America and Haiti, the caravan busted through a Mexican highway checkpoint over the weekend.

Organizers say they’re confused by Mr. Biden.

“At least with Donald Trump, we knew what we have. With Biden, we don’t know,” Irineo Mujica said in a clip posted by Ms. Bradley. “He doesn’t seem to have a clue what to do with immigration.”

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said it’s no surprise people are confused by the administration‘s messaging, because “nobody is in charge.”

“Everybody’s freelancing. And so there isn’t going to be a consistent rhetorical line because nobody is determining what that line is,” he said.

Experts said it doesn’t really matter what the administration‘s rhetorical approach is, anyway. What matters is the administration‘s actions and what would-be migrants see, and right now, they see tens of thousands of people each month jump the border and get caught and released.

“The Biden messaging to the rest of the world is clear and unmistakable — to quote Bob Barker in ‘The Price is Right’: ‘Come on down!’” said Ken Cuccinelli, who served as acting deputy secretary at Homeland Security in the Trump years.

That’s particularly true for illegal immigrant children and adults who travel with them, said Mr. Krikorian.

“People, family units, are let go into the United States and it doesn’t really matter whether they win an asylum claim or even file an asylum claim,” he said.

Once here, even though they are still without legal status, they’re not likely to be removed unless they commit a major crime that brings them back to the attention of authorities, Mr. Krikorian added.

Mr. Garland‘s confusing answer came during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in which Sen. Lindsey Graham wondered whether the attorney general was paying attention to the caravan making its way through Mexico.

Mr. Garland said he was reading press reports about it. Mr. Graham then asked the attorney general for his message.

“I would tell them not to come, but the job of the Justice Department has to do with prosecution and with the way in which the asylum and removal claims are adjudicated,” he said.

Then prodded for clarity by Mr. Graham, Mr. Garland amended his answer to “it depends.”

That might actually be the most accurate answer of any administration official, Mr. Krikorian said, because that it acknowledges the reality that many people are in fact getting in.

Coming to the U.S. to reunite with family or for jobs is not a valid reason for asylum. Fleeing government persecution is.

The tricky areas are cases involving more general violence, either from gangs or within families, and whether those count.

The Trump administration tried to narrowly define those instances, but Mr. Garland has overruled those definitions and expanded the scope of who could qualify for asylum.

But during the coronavirus pandemic, none of that is supposed to matter, thanks to the Biden administration‘s continuation of the Title 42 public health emergency order.

First imposed by the Trump administration, Title 42 is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decision that shots down the border to unauthorized migration. Those caught attempting to enter without permission are to be immediately expelled back across the boundary — even if they had planned to seek asylum.

The Justice Department didn’t respond to a follow-up request seeking to square Mr. Garland‘s stance with Title 42.

Immigrant-rights groups have called on the Biden team to end Title 42, citing the lack of ability to make asylum claims.

The new administration has rebuffed those calls, though it has carved an exemption to Title 42 for unaccompanied illegal immigrant juveniles.

Under the new administration, Mexico has become less cooperative in taking back expulsions, forcing the Biden team to “catch and release” tens of thousands of people each month.

In September, the most recent month of border data, Customs and Border Protection had 192,001 encounters with illegal immigrants along the southern boundary, though because of repeat offenders, that covered 142,710 people.

Of those, only 53,382 — just 37% — were expelled under Title 42. Of the nearly 90,000 others not expelled, most were caught and released.

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