The Refugee Ceiling and the Border Crisis Are Related — Just Not in the Way Joe Biden Seems to Think

Last month, for the second consecutive month, the Border Patrol made more than 150,000 apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border, the highest numbers in 15 years. Roughly 17,000 of those individuals were children traveling without a parent, down just slightly from March’s record figures. President Joe Biden recently acknowledged the situation as a “crisis,” and cited it as the reason he signed a memorandum in April holding refugee admissions to a historically low level of 15,000 for the rest of the year, rather than raising to the 62,500 his State Department called for in February.

This week, after widespread outcry from Congressional Democrats to evangelical leaders and Catholic bishops, the president finally did increase the refugee ceiling. But his rationale for the initial ceiling re-affirming the Trump era ceiling — that “the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up on the border with young people” — is still worth examining.

Whether it was genuine confusion or simply a pretext to mask equivocation, this argument, as my colleague Jenny Yang has explained, is based on “faulty reasoning.”

The reality is that the U.S. refugee resettlement program is operated by the State Department, utilizing a staff and congressionally appropriated budget that is distinct from the challenge of caring for unaccompanied children encountered at the border.

While the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for providing temporary care for unaccompanied children, it — counterintuitively — does not oversee the initial placement nor primary funding for refugee resettlement. The State Department does.

But Biden is actually right that the challenges at the border are related to refugee resettlement — just not in the way he seems to think.

The crisis at the border is actually a crisis of legal immigration. When orderly migration options like the refugee resettlement program are almost entirely closed off, desperate people fearing persecution conclude that their only option is to travel to the U.S. border, where they have the right to request asylum. They’d much rather avoid the dangerous trip, be processed closer to home and then, if approved, be met at the airport by a resettlement agency like World Relief.

But given that, as of March 31, just 139 Central American refugees had been resettled since October, tens of thousands have concluded the odds are stacked against them.

Of course, this legal immigration crisis is not entirely the fault of White House equivocation on refugees. The House of Representatives has moved forward on some targeted immigration bills, but has not taken up the comprehensive immigration reform bill that Biden proposed on his first day in office because it does not have the votes to pass in the Democratic-controlled body.

Two smaller bills that did pass (one providing a path to citizenship for Dreamers and those with “temporary” protected status and the other a bill legalizing undocumented farmworkers and expanding agricultural worker visas) face steep odds in the U.S. Senate. The Republican cosponsor of the Dream Act recently cited the border situation as the reason it was not the time to proceed with his own bill.

Political hesitation like this only perpetuates cyclical crises at the border every few years.

Unlike decades ago, when immigrants seeking a better life in the United States would try to surreptitiously enter the country through a relatively porous border, most of those being apprehended in recent years are looking for the Border Patrol. Most are not trying to break the law, but to avail themselves of it, requesting asylum or other protections offered by U.S. law available only to those who reach the United States. Some will qualify and some will not, but even the attempt requires a dangerous journey to the border.

And many Americans probably do not realize that more than 40 percent of unaccompanied children apprehended by the Border Patrol are coming to the United States because at least one of their parents is already here.

Our immigration laws have a process for a green card holder or U.S. citizen to petition for an immigrant visa for their minor child living abroad. That process does not work, however, when the parent is residing unlawfully in the United States Had Congress acted a decade ago to enact the sort of legalization process that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both supported, allowing undocumented immigrants to pay a fine and earn permanent legal status, a sizable share of the unaccompanied children in Border Patrol facilities today could have arrived safely and legally on an airplane to be reunited to their parent.

By deferring action on such a restitution-based legalization process now, Congress is making it more likely we’ll face yet another unaccompanied child crisis a few years down the road.

Others of those who arrive at our border are fleeing extreme poverty — at the same time as particular sectors of our economy such as agriculture are already facing severe labor shortages.

What if, rather than traveling to the border and hoping to win a long-shot case at asylum, more Central Americans could spend a fraction of what they’d pay a smuggler to apply for a visa at the U.S consulate in their country of origin, then purchase a plane ticket?

That’s actually precisely what happened among Mexican nationals when the United States dramatically increased access to temporary work visas, which led to a dramatic decline in illegal immigration from Mexico. Expanding such access to Central Americans would almost certainly reduce the number who travel without a visa to the border.

The current humanitarian crisis compels an immediate response, including providing appropriate care for vulnerable children. But if we want to avoid recurring crises every few years, our elected officials need to finally address the legal immigration crisis. Biden’s increased refugee ceiling, while delayed, is a positive step. Now Congress should provide more robust legal immigration options and ways for Dreamers and other immigrants to earn citizenship.


Matthew Soerens is the U.S. director of church mobilization and advocacy for World Relief and the coauthor of “Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate.”

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult