How Biden Could Bring Back Trump

He's losing control of events, and immigration is front and center.

Migrants, mostly from Haiti, gather on the bank of the Rio Grande in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, across the border from Del Rio, Texas, on September 19, 2021. (John Moore/Getty Images)

In his usual tempered language, former president Barack Obama took note of the vast crowds of Haitian migrants who had largely overwhelmed the small border town of Del Rio last week. He viewed it as a cumulative failure of immigration policy:

Immigration is tough. It always has been because, on the one hand, I think we are naturally a people that wants to help others. At the same time, we’re a nation-state. We have borders. The idea that we can just have open borders is something that ... as a practical matter, is unsustainable.

That’s an apposite word: “unsustainable.” And yet what is unsustainable seems currently unstoppable.

We are in a new era of mass migration, and the US government is demonstrating in real time that it has no idea how to control it. From January through July, well over a million undocumented migrants were intercepted at the border — Venezuelans, Cubans, Haitians, Romanians, among others — and the pace is accelerating. If those intercepted in the first half of this year formed a city, it would be the tenth largest in the US.

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There are some short-term factors behind this: earthquakes, natural disasters, political unrest, Covid, gang warfare, and economic stagnation. But there is also a long-term one: climate change, the impact of which on migration from the south to the north is increasingly felt across the globe. The sudden wave at the border is a 21-year high — after both the Obama and Trump administrations had kept the numbers to around a quarter of that rate most years (excluding a sudden surge in 2019).

A further — and arguably central — reason for the acceleration is a change under Biden in how the US treats these intercepted newcomers. Last July, under Trump, 92 percent were expelled under the “Remain in Mexico” policy — which keeps asylum seekers out of the country while their cases are adjudicated — and under Title 42 to prevent Covid outbreaks. Only eight percent were allowed into the US, pending court dates. In July 2021, under Biden, those numbers went to 47 percent expelled and 53 percent admitted. In the latest crisis, with 15,000 Haitian migrants arriving in Del Rio, around 2,500 were sent back to Haiti (where many hadn’t lived for years), and 12,500 were allowed in. That’s an 83 percent success rate.

So what, you may ask? Don’t those 12,500 have to get their asylum cases approved in order to stay permanently and legally in the US? Theoretically yes. But the wait for a court date can be several years (the average is around two and a half years) given our broken immigration infrastructure, after which it’s inhumane (as well as extremely difficult) to send people back. There’s also currently no way to force anyone to appear at the court, and 50 percent of removal orders — failed applications for asylum resulting in deportation — are issued in absentia, i.e. without the asylum-seeker showing up. The key stat: every year only around two percent of illegal immigrants are deported. You can do the math. That’s why another 60,000 Haitians are on their way.

We don’t like to confront this ugly reality. But the moral hazard of easing the path of migrants into the US, and showing the rightful level of compassion and care, is that it incentivizes many more to come. And indeed the Biden administration was warned by both the Mexican and Panamanian governments, and by their own experts, that ending “Remain in Mexico” would trigger a flood of new migrants, because they knew if they could just get to the other side of the border, the odds of being deported are increasingly small. Biden ended the policy anyway.

As with the Afghanistan withdrawal, Biden ignored advice from multiple actors. “We sounded the alarm when we should have,” Panama’s foreign minister, Erika Mouynes, told Axios. “We’ve engaged with every single authority that we can think of, that we can come across, to say, ‘Please, let’s pay attention to this.” But Biden didn’t. And when the border police were forced to confront the subsequent surge, Biden impulsively smeared the border police — based on falsehoods that they’d used their reins as whips (they hadn’t).

The other clear fact is that, by any sane definition, these are not people fleeing political or religious persecution, i.e. bona fide asylum cases. Most, including most Haitians, had already relocated to countries like Chile, but chose the US for economic reasons. And that’s great. They can apply legally, and see if they qualify. Instead, they are using the broken border, and fake claims of asylum, to jump the line.

Whenever I note this, I’m told: “You got to come here, and now you want to stop others. Kick the ladder from under you, huh, you selfish prick.” My response is simply that I went through an arduous, endless, nail-biting, but legal process, like millions of others, who endure it with a fraction of my resources. It is not a paradox that legal immigrants are not super-fans of illegal immigration. It makes a lot of sense, which is partly why Latino support for the Democrats is weakening, especially in border towns in Texas.

It’s obviously not all Biden’s fault. He’s in a terrible spot. The immigration system has been starved of resources for years; we have nowhere near enough immigration courts, judges, and detention centers; and we have a massive backlog of cases. The tribalized Congress can barely legislate even to avoid a national default, let alone overhaul immigration. Eleven million people still have no legal status; and the border remains insecure, in part because Trump didn’t keep a core campaign promise.

My point is simply this: when you inherit this mess and face what might be a new era of mass migration, you don’t swiftly end measures like Remain in Mexico that helped stem the flood; you don’t create extra incentives for more migration; you don’t reduce enforcement, as Mayorkas just announced; you keep things under control — especially when we are in a pandemic — and then try to reform and rebuild carefully. Like the movement to defund the police in several big cities, Biden moved too swiftly to mark a clear break from the past without thinking through the near future.

He had a very simple excuse anyway: Covid. He was already banning Europeans from entering the US. He couldn’t invoke the same reason to keep the Southern land-border effectively closed? He issued vaccine mandates for millions of Americans but not for migrants at the border, who have an estimated 20 percent infection rate? The nativist notion that the Democrats favor illegal immigrants over US citizens is not exactly refuted by this glaring kind of double standard.

But the moral frisson of crafting your immigration policies simply as a photo-negative image of Trump’s was too much for the Democrats to resist. The temptation to reduce every normie concern about immigration to “white supremacy” was too hard to eschew. And the view that “All Borders Are Racist” — as perfect an expression of woke extremism as “Defund the Police” and “Pregnant People” — became an elite cause. Nation-states and borders? That has been left in the dust of the Obama era. You know: Obama, the black president who deported more illegal immigrants than any president in history and won enough white Northern working-class votes to win the Electoral College and popular vote twice.

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There is a broader, darker context here as well. The cold civil war now raging in this country is fueled by rapidly changing demographics, and a century-high peak in the foreign-born population. Native cultural and racial anxiety is ascendant, as anyone with any faint grasp of human nature or passing acquaintance with history could have predicted. The last time we had such a mass influx, a century ago, we shut down most immigration for decades. Elsewhere in the West, mass migration has empowered the far right, and taken the UK out of the EU.

Yet in a very similar situation, when racial anxiety has already helped bring an unhinged authoritarian to power, and threatens to help him come back, the Democrats seem utterly blind to the danger. You want to take the wind out of the racist “Great Replacement” canard that appears to be gaining traction? You can huff and puff on Twitter, and feel great. Or you can get serious about border control.

The optics are also terrible — and compound a sense that the Biden administration is losing control of events. The scenes of death and mayhem in Kabul merge too easily in the mind with the squalor and disorder in Del Rio. Factor in the faltering vaccine program, and the prevaricating, incomprehensible shit-show of this Congress, and you can see how the image of a doddering incompetent in the White House is beginning to stick. And once that image imprints itself, it’s hard to escape it.

Worse: the immigration debate reflects an elite that simply cannot imagine why most normal citizens think that enforcing a country’s borders is not an exercise in white supremacist violence, but a core function of any basic government.

Which is to say that far from taming the brushfire of right ethno-populism, Biden may be fueling it. Trump may not need to send the country into a constitutional crisis in 2024. If mass migration continues to accelerate under this administration, and Biden seems unable or unwilling to do anything about it, Tump could win that election in a romp. And deserve to.

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(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my worrying take over Dem over-reach when it comes to the infrastructure bill; a tough but civil conversation with Briahna Joy Gray over race and class in America; several dissents over my views on immigration and CRT; another dissent over my fear of Trump’s resilience; a Creepy Ad Watch for an infomercial for Kendi’s kids’ book; an Yglesias Award for Nikole Hannah-Jones; six notable quotes for the week, mostly on the woke revolution within the Labour Party; eight pieces by other substackers we recommend; a fantastical Mental Health Break of a dog’s dream; window views from Baltimore and a Canadian glacier; and the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)

From a super-fan of the VFYW contest:

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since we won the view contest and received the book prize:

This past weekend was my husband David’s birthday, so I gave him your new book of essays. I was hoping to find out when you might be in DC for a book signing, and while searching, I saw that you had a virtual book discussion scheduled for Sept 21st. I thought “perfect,” so I added that info to the gift. David was really looking forward to it, but unfortunately he was stuck on work phone calls until almost 10 PM that night. Is there another?

The September 21st virtual discussion was actually postponed and rescheduled for this upcoming Wednesday, October 6, at 1pm EST, so if you reserved a spot, stay tuned for an emailed link, if you haven’t gotten one already. As part of a virtual discussion here on the Dish, a reader writes:

I started reading your wonderful Out On a Limb book. The first essay, “Here Comes the Groom,” reminded me of an interesting chat I had with my wife. I’ve always appreciated the narrative that the push for marriage equality was so successful so quickly because people like you reached out to your philosophical opponents in the liberal tradition of convincing through reasoned argument and open-minded discussion. You had a strong argument that resonated, so you convinced people, and thus society changed.

I proposed this to my wife, who advanced a different narrative for that success: the AIDS epidemic pushed gay people into the spotlight and made them sympathetic; that was the primary cause for an incredible advance in social acceptance of gays; and once gay people are just regular people, of course them getting married isn’t that big a deal. So it would have happened with or without the organized push for marriage equality. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that alternative narrative!

It was both! As I’ve often argued, marriage equality would not have happened without them cultural and moral impact of the AIDS epidemic. But equally, it was advanced by consistent argument and engagement and activism and public education.

If you have any of your own questions or comments about Out On a Limb, shoot us an email: dish@andrewsullivan.com. I also just discussed the book via Zoom with Philadelphia Citizen co-founder Larry Platt:


The Risks Of Dem Over-Reach

As we send this newsletter out, I have no idea what is going to happen with the House vote on the Senate’s infrastructure bill today. These kinds of negotiations are by nature opaque to outsiders, and you never know.

(Read the rest of that post here)


New On The Dishcast: Briahna Joy Gray

Briahna, a lawyer and political consultant who served as press secretary for Bernie Sanders, co-hosts the superb podcast Bad Faith. I start our enjoyable convo with a simple question: how can we best facilitate the flourishing of black America? I’m trying to reach out and engage more people I have disagreements with, to see where we might have common ground. I’m immensely grateful to Briahna for coming on.

To listen to two excerpts from our conversation — on the extent to which culture plays a role in poverty, and on the causes behind the sky-high murder rates of young African-American men — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to several dissents from listeners of our episode with Antonio García Martínez, on immigration and CRT. Next week: Cornel West.


Dissent Of The Week: The System Is Working?

There’s very little disagreement in the in-tray over my piece worrying about “the deepening menace of Trump.” A notable exception, in part:

Your concerns about Trump are, frankly, flying in the face of the actual record of what hardcore Republicans did last year. The system was tested in 2020 and passed with flying colors.

Read the rest of that dissent, and my response to it, here. As always, keep the constructive criticisms coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, such as the view from your own window (don’t forget part of the window frame): dish@andrewsullivan.com.


In The ‘Stacks

In case you’re new to the Dish, “In the ‘Stacks” is a feature in the paid version of our newsletter that highlights about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other substackers every week. This week’s selection covers topics such as the environmental impact of ride-sharing, the limits of education spending, and the merits and demerits of Obama’s legacy. Here’s one example from a promising writer known as Resident Contrarian:

  • A moving paean to extremely hard, essentially pointless video games.

If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: dish@andrewsullivan.com.


The View From Your Window Contest

Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!

The results for the last week’s contest are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. Here’s a sneak peek of one entry:

I recently re-read this terrifying article in The New Yorker from 2015. The description of what will happen to the land (and communities) along the coast from Northern California to Washington when the earthquake hits is shocking. Perhaps most shocking is the apparent certainty with which it *will* happen. And then the entire coastline — everything west of Route 5 (!!) — will be gone. It almost feels so potentially imminent that it’d be too much of a risk to even visit somewhere like the Oregon coast lest you just have the worst possible timing, let alone to actually live and work and send your kids to school there.

Anyway! We couldn’t find the spot this week. Have a great weekend!

See you next Friday, hopefully with a West Coast still intact.