Biden Should Declare an Emergency at the Border—and Handle It Wildly Differently Than Trump

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On March 9, 2021, in a move that was little noted outside of those who study immigration professionally, the still-new Biden administration granted something called Temporary Protected Status to as many as 320,000 Venezuelan nationals in the United States.

This designation is slightly different than what is granted to most asylum-seeking migrants. TPS applies to non-nationals who are already in the United States—those for whom returning to their home country would be dangerous—and it also allows those who qualify to apply for work permits in the U.S.

Prior to 2021, this status was offered mostly to those from war-torn countries that had descended into widespread civil or political violence, like Sudan and Liberia. It was also sometimes applied to individuals from countries that were experiencing devastating natural disasters. The extension of TPS to people from Venezuela, where there was significant economic and political chaos but no civil war, was a departure from existing norms. It also appears to have had the unintended effect of catalyzing an even more significant mass migration from Venezuela to the United States—one that has become a gigantic political problem for President Biden as he pursues his troubled reelection bid. If Democrats want to win the election this November, they are going to have to address it.

A fair amount of what you read about the “migrant crisis” is really about Venezuela, a country that recently experienced a nightmarish, full-scale meltdown of its economic, social, and political institutions. Dictator Nicolás Maduro, the left-populist successor to the late Hugo Chavez, has plunged the country into long-term authoritarian sclerosis, consolidating control of state institutions, persecuting his opposition, and cracking down on dissent. The nonpartisan Freedom House notes that Venezuela’s “democratic institutions have been deteriorating since 1999,” and now gives Venezuela one of the lowest democracy scores in the world.

President Trump placed several rounds of sanctions on Venezuela, including a ban on economically critical oil exports in 2019, that appear to have dramatically worsened the situation without succeeding in deposing Maduro. And since 2016, Venezuela has experienced hyperinflation, a profoundly destructive economic syndrome in which prices increase exponentially and destroy the value of the currency. The country’s inflation rate hit an almost unfathomable 130,060 percent in 2018, a waking nightmare that—along with a steep contraction in the size of the overall economy—devastated Venezuelan society as it descended into destitution and lawlessness. Despite some recovery in 2023, the situation remains dire. That economic crisis, to which the United States, its sanctions, and its inept meddling unquestionably contributed, is the genesis of the unprecedented mass migration out of the country—a staggering 7.3 million Venezuelans and counting have fled the country over the past decade, according to the U.N.

That’s including through Mexico. Last October, the number of Venezuelans who crossed over to the U.S. through the southern border with Mexico was so substantial that it surpassed the number of Mexican migrants doing the same. This movement of people was a big contributor to the spikes in border encounters that have been seized upon politically by Republicans as evidence of a massive crisis. And while immigrants—documented or otherwise—tend to commit crimes at lower rates than U.S-born Americans, the sheer scale of arrivals at the border, and the forward movement of hundreds of thousands of people to towns and cities across the country, is a civic crisis when it comes to the logistical and financial challenges. It demands a coherent response.

To be sure, the Biden administration’s decision to grant indefinite protection to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants was well-intentioned and recognizes the role that U.S. policy played in worsening the country’s plight. And the administration also performed a belated pivot by lifting some sanctions in exchange for Maduro’s government agreeing to hold elections sometime this year, a promise that looks increasingly empty. To its credit, the White House has also invested significant resources in a regional dialogue intended to restore order to Venezuela, in no small part because the unprecedented movement of refugees has destabilized neighboring countries too, including Colombia.

But TPS was never meant to work for this many people this quickly, and the evidence of the policy’s monumental failure is everywhere. In Chicago, where I live, thousands of Venezuelans crowd the city’s overwhelmed shelters. Many spend most of their days on the street, and while they are technically able to apply to live and work here, the sheer number of people has quickly overwhelmed the capacity of local institutions. Resentment against Venezuelan migrants is building to a crescendo, and the city’s beleaguered progressive mayor is reeling from the crisis. And while their presence is technically unrelated to Chicago’s sanctuary city ordinance (because most are here legally under the TPS order), there has been a sharp turn against immigrants and immigration in the city—threatening to endanger the city’s long-standing status as a welcoming place for immigrants and refugees.

Policy implementation and follow-through is where ideas live or die. And to be blunt, there is nothing moral or good about extending protected status to people who you then go on to fail in every conceivable way. Yes, the far right has been stoking a moral panic about migration for more than a decade. That they will seize on every crime committed by an undocumented immigrant and make it a prime-time story on Fox News goes without saying—this is why President Biden felt obligated to acknowledge the tragic killing of Laken Riley, the Georgia nursing student who was allegedly murdered by a Venezuelan migrant last month, at his State of the Union address. But the fact that opportunistic actors are exploiting the situation for political gain does not mean that there isn’t a real and growing policy problem, and there is no question that this one falls squarely on the Biden administration’s shoulders.

The problem keeps getting muddier. The Biden administration announced in September that migrants from Venezuela who arrived prior to July 31, 2023, would be eligible for TPS, which more than 472,000 additional people can now apply for. But the administration also resumed deporting Venezuelans who arrived after July 31, arguing that it was safe for them to return to Venezuela—but for some reason, not safe for the other 700,000 Venezuelan nationals in the United States. This obviously makes no sense.

The situation is not made any better by Biden’s inability to address it. The word “Venezuela” did not appear in the president’s State of the Union address, and while he apologized for using the word “illegal”—the far right’s preferred dehumanizing terminology for undocumented immigrants—Biden seemingly never intended to make any kind of case for his administration’s policies. This is a pattern, not just for the president but for the Democratic Party as a whole. Biden rarely speaks publicly about immigration, and when he does it is usually about border security—a frame that almost automatically benefits the Republican stance on the issue. Most of his recent remarks have been designed to highlight the failure of congressional Republicans to sign onto the now-dead bipartisan Senate immigration compromise.

And it is true that the GOP’s cynical opposition to the deal was driven almost entirely by Donald Trump’s election-year calculation that the perception of continued immigration chaos would hurt Biden in November. House Republicans, instead of negotiating in good faith, pursued a preposterous impeachment of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that will end in acquittal in the Senate with nothing accomplished for anyone. But that doesn’t absolve Biden of the need to communicate to Americans why it is good for the United States to continue to embrace hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers every year.

That voters are unhappy with current policy is the inescapable conclusion of reading and trusting public opinion polls on the issue. A January Pew survey found that 78 percent of Americans think that there is a “crisis” or a “major problem” with the number of migrants seeking entry to the United States. An Associated Press–NORC poll last week showed Americans are dissatisfied with Biden’s handling of immigration and the border by a margin of 68–31. And a February Gallup Poll showed that immigration now tops the list of problems Americans are most concerned about. If this election is about immigration and nothing changes, Biden is going to lose it.

The first step in addressing this situation for Biden and the Democrats is to accept that voter unhappiness stems from real concerns and not false consciousness driven by Fox News panic. The stakes are extremely high: If Trump wins a second term, he will use a combination of cruelty and vindictiveness to pursue mass deportations and the further militarization of the border. This isn’t about whether the United States will build a wall, but about whether the country continues to be a place that welcomes a certain number of immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees. The Trump administration would make every effort to abolish TPS as a policy, endangering not just recent Venezuelan migrants but also, for example, nearly 200,000 Salvadorans, many of whom have lived and worked in the United States for more than two decades. Families and communities would be torn apart. Countless individuals would be sent home to certain persecution. A Trump administration would also not shy away from the kinds of measures recently embraced by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, including the installation of physical barriers like spiked floating buoys in the Rio Grande, which are clearly meant to harm people who try to cross the border. A Republican Congress would take a long look at the Refugee Act of 1980 and possibly end U.S. participation in the international asylum-seeking regime altogether.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers for Biden. It would be wildly immoral to suddenly rescind TPS status for Venezuelans, and even if that was your cup of tea, former President Trump tried to revoke TPS status for nationals of multiple countries and ended up tied down by years of litigation. Biden cannot simply “close the border” via executive action as his bad-faith critics in the GOP keep demanding. Lacking control of the House, Democrats cannot unilaterally allocate the resources necessary to alleviate the crisis without a legislative partner on the other side of the aisle.

But what he could do is make an affirmative case to the American people about why Venezuelans in particular need protection and how they can benefit local economies under the right circumstances, and then link them to well-regarded past efforts to welcome large numbers of people fleeing ideologically hostile regimes, such as the Mariel boatlift that brought more than 125,000 Cubans to the United States in 1980. Will this be easy? No. But it certainly beats allowing the far right to set the agenda, demonize immigrants, and demagogue the border without any pushback whatsoever.

Biden should also take a page from Trump’s playbook by declaring a national emergency at the border. Yes, this would require enduring accusations of hypocrisy given that Democrats loudly opposed Trump’s 2019 emergency declaration, which he used to siphon money from the military to his beloved wall. But the lawsuits that were filed against Trump’s actions did not stop him from spending the money, and the Supreme Court ultimately sided with the White House.

And Biden wouldn’t do it Trump’s way. A national emergency declaration grants the president broad and nearly unassailable powers, and would allow the Biden administration to invest money where it is needed—in border communities, but also in the many states and cities that have been overwhelmed by the number of migrants they have been asked to care for and that need facilities and staff to carry out their work. Rep. Ruben Gallego, the Democrat running for the (praise be!) open Senate seat in Arizona, has asked the president for a disaster declaration for his state, which would unlock funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and there’s no particular reason this couldn’t be done in multiple locales. If Congress thinks that the authority that it granted to presidents via the 1976 National Emergencies Act is too broad (and it definitely is!), it can go ahead and claw it back. In the meantime, the president needs to use the authority he clearly has now to address the situation without resorting to the draconian measures of the GOP years.

At this point, there’s not really an alternative. Politico reported late last month that “White House officials are keen on giving Biden’s recent border messaging blitz”—which involves pointing fingers at the GOP for sabotaging the border deal—”as much runway as possible.”

That’s not going to cut it—not for the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans and their host cities who need more help than they are getting, and not for the president’s chances of averting the catastrophe of a second term for Trump. Hopefully our pilots in the White House will soon realize that they’ve been slip-sliding past the runway for months and course-correct before it’s too late.