This Washington Post Opinion Piece Is Rewriting the Recent History of Border Control

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

This isn’t the worst piece I’ve ever read on the border issue but it’s not the best either. The main failure is summed up in the headline: “Forget about securing the border. It won’t work.” In order to prove this point, the author points back to some recent history and botches it. We’ll get to that in a moment but first here’s the part of the piece which the author gets right.


Today, migrants come from further afield, including from South America, Asia and Africa. And there are more of them: Border Patrol agents ran into prospective migrants more than 2 million times in fiscal 2023, surpassing the peaks of 1986 and 2000. About 1.1 million more showed up at official ports of entry. Most hope to apply for asylum. And yet they are driven by the same goals as those who sought the United States decades before: a safe environment that provides an opportunity to survive and, hopefully, flourish.

Republicans are right that whatever the Biden administration is doing is not working. The president’s new strategy — to draw migrants toward official channels — isn’t working to stem the flow. The backlog of migrants waiting for their day in immigration court passed 3 million in November. Border agents are encountering more than 300,000 migrants each month. Encounters exceeded 3 million last year. The very concept of asylum is losing public support.

In short, this is a crisis and the Biden administration hasn’t done much of anything to make it better. Also, he deserves credit for admitting something many ideologues on the left (whether the author is one of those or not I don’t know) hesitate to admit: These are economic migrants looking for a better life. And I’ll add that most aren’t eligible for asylum and have no business making and asylum claim. But here’s where his argument goes off the rails.


But the GOP has nothing better to offer. Its ideas are born of the myth that President Donald Trump’s draconian policies — forcing Mexico to house Central Americans; separating kids from their families; putting some in cages — were successful. But migrants kept coming: U.S. agents encountered almost 860,000 migrants at the border in fiscal 2019, before the outbreak of covid-19 began to hold them back. That figure is almost double what it was before Trump took office. The backlog in immigration court increased by 142 percent during his administration, to nearly 1.3 million.

I could be wrong but this strikes me as intentionally misleading. It’s true that there was a big surge of migrants in 2019, but it’s also true that surge had subsided months before the pandemic. Here’s a graph showing the surge in 2019. As you can see, there’s a sharp peak in May when the southwest border apprehensions hit 144,000 in a single month.

But the numbers declined every month after that and by September 2019 were back down to 52,000. That decline continued. At the start of FY20, i.e. in October 2019 apprehensions dropped to 35,000. In November they dropped again to 33,000 and in December they were down to 32,000. In other words, FY20 roughly followed the blue line in the graph above even before anyone had heard about the pandemic.

This is obviously not consistent with the claim that Trump’s “draconian policies” didn’t work. There’s every reason to think the numbers in 2020 would have remained at the lower level they were for the first several months of the fiscal year even if the pandemic hadn’t driven them lower still. In fact, I would argue that the pandemic didn’t really impact the numbers much at all until March of 2020. Remember, nothing was shut down in the US in January or February. The WHO didn’t declare a pandemic until March 11 and state lockdowns began around mid-March.


The other problem with this analysis is that the number of border encounters really soared starting in Feb. 2021 weeks after Joe Biden took office. In fact, since March of 2021 there has not been a single month in which the border encounters were lower than the peak in that graph of 2019 above. Put another way, Trump’s peak border activity was Biden’s floor.

And that shouldn’t be much of a surprise because, as the Washington Post’s immigration reporter pointed out way back in April 2021 the Biden White House invited this crisis by signaling a dramatic rollback of Trump-era border measures.

The prudent tone Biden’s team sounded in December was harder to detect on Inauguration Day, as the guardrails started coming off. Biden issued more executive orders and actions on immigration than any other topic, including a 100-day deportation moratorium and a halt to border wall construction…

Word soon spread that families with children younger than 7 years old were being allowed to enter the United States and released from custody. Families fitting that profile began rushing to that span of the border, where U.S. agents were already overwhelmed by soaring numbers of teens and children arriving alone…

More migrant families were arriving, too, and with Mexico only taking back a limited number, the Biden administration released more and more parents with children into border towns and cities. Biden officials continued to insist they were expelling the majority of the families crossing the border. It wasn’t true; statistics show fewer than half were being sent back…

At a March 25 news conference, Biden falsely described the increase as a seasonal norm, not a result of his policies or approach. “The truth of the matter is: Nothing has changed,” Biden said. “It happens every single, solitary year.”


Joe Biden personally sent the message that the border controls were coming down and then when the number of migrants started rising he lied about it. I remember it well. The 860,000 migrants encountered in all of 2019 (which the Post author highlights in the excerpt above) has almost certainly been surpassed as of today, just 3 1/2 months into FY 2024. There’s no comparison.

To summarize this, Trump had one bad Spring/Summer and managed to get things under control in the months that followed (before the pandemic). Biden announced he was undoing those border control efforts and the result was a series of new monthly and annual records which peaked last month with the highest total in our history.

Glossing over all of that isn’t giving readers an accurate picture of what works and what doesn’t. Contrary to the headline’s claim, taking a tough line on asylum seekers can work to limit the flow of migrants while signaling that most migrants who show up will be given a free pass into the country (for the many years it takes to see a judge) creates a historic crisis. Those are the fact we need to learn from going forward.

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John Stossel 5:30 PM | July 13, 2024