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Why and how the politics of immigration has shifted over the past six months

Vice President Harris traveled on Friday to the border, where she spoke with Border Patrol agents and toured a facility near El Paso. In the broader political conversation, if not in conservative media, the visit amounted to something of a blip. While earlier this year a dramatic increase in the number of migrants apprehended at the border spurred a flurry of questions for and criticism of the Biden administration, that focus has faded somewhat, reducing the temperature surrounding Harris’s visit.
Exploring how the immigration crisis faded and where it didn’t provides a lot of insight into how immigration has worked under Biden — and the extent to which he has benefited from a much-debated policy implemented by his predecessor.
There’s no question that the number of apprehensions at the border was higher at the beginning of this year than in years past. Data from Customs and Border Protection shows that detention activity at the border with Mexico clearly increased after January.
That data also shows, though, that the increase began last spring, shortly after the government closed the border in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Even so, the increase has been dramatic.
What spurred the crisis earlier this year wasn’t just an increase in traffic at the border. The crisis instead derived from the number of children who were arriving at the border, either with adults or by themselves. In fact, the number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border was higher in March than at any other point on record. 

There are two reasons that was a particular problem. The federal government is mandated to treat detained children differently than adults. Under a legal settlement reached in 1997, child migrants detained by the United States can only be kept in typical, prisonlike detention facilities for a short period of time. The government has to move quickly toward releasing them to family members and, in the interim, must provide health care and educational assessments, among other things. In other words, caring for minors is much more resource-intensive. The government can’t simply hold them in detention centers indefinitely — so if the government isn’t prepared for an influx of minors, the system can quickly be overwhelmed.
By early April, the government had gotten more of a handle on dealing with the increase in child migrants (a group that includes not only the unaccompanied minors but also those arriving with their parents). The number of child migrants in the custody of the Border Patrol — in what should only be short-term facilities — dropped over the course of that month, as the below graph from the American Immigration Council makes clear.

By early May, the government had also started to reduce the number of children being accommodated by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency responsible for longer-term care.
The other reason the surge in minors and families was a problem was that the Biden administration had shifted away from quickly expelling members of those groups in line with Title 42 of U.S. Code Section 265.
You’ll be forgiven for not being immediately familiar with that particular legal guideline. In short, at the beginning of the pandemic, the Trump administration began using Title 42 as a justification to turn away people seeking entry to the United States on public health grounds. The result was that, from March through December of 2020, 83 percent of those denied entry or apprehended at the border were returned to Mexico. Under Biden, that has declined to 66 percent — still more than half.
The number of children or family units (as the government’s term has it) expelled to Mexico has declined from 61 to 26 percent, meaning far more children are remaining in the country. In recent weeks, though, the administration has faced calls to reduce that percentage even further.
The graph above, though, shows how Title 42 affects what’s happening at the border. The majority of those stopped at the border are returned to Mexico, including 85 percent of individual adults. Doing so, of course, reduces strain on government resources.
White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, pointing to that American Immigration Council report, further touted the fact that many of those who are stopped at the border are actually people making another attempt after having been expelled.
The extent to which the fact that fewer new people are seeking entry to the United States counts as some sort of victory would seem to be subjective.
One way we can measure how the political crisis for the administration has faded is to look at how often the border is being mentioned on cable news. In March, a bit under 2 percent of all 15-second segments that aired on CNN or MSNBC in a given day included a mention of the border. On Fox News and Fox Business, the averages were 8 percent and 5 percent, respectively. By May, CNN and MSNBC were mentioning the border in fewer than 1 in 200 segments, on average. The Fox networks were a bit above 2 percent.
You’ll notice that there was an increase in mentions of the border on both Fox News and Fox Business this month. That’s mostly because of an increase in mentions of the border in the context of the vice president. After Biden announced that Harris would lead the administration’s immigration efforts, conservative media began focusing on the fact that she had yet to actually visit the border. That criticism increased this month until the White House announced her visit earlier this week.
During her visit to the border, Harris insisted that her visit was “not a new plan.” But one would be forgiven for assuming that the administration is very aware that her doing so cuts off another bit of oxygen for criticism from its opponents.
Sources: Washington post

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