Good Intentions, Poor Results

President Joe Biden must know now that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. All he has to do to confirm it is to look at America’s mess on the southern border. It’s biting him for being humane.

Reverse the strict racist immigration policy of his predecessor and open the gates just a little to newcomers, and they will come. By the thousands, many of them unaccompanied children and teenagers.

Biden administration officials should have known that to relax restrictions immediately on refugees only would invite them to swarm toward the border in hopes of being let in. Humane treatment is good, of course, but it encourages a reaction that creates problems for a host country, in this case a surge of people with few places to put them.

The situation is a crisis, regardless of how the administration wants to label it. But it’s nothing new. People have been uprooting themselves from their homelands because war, famine, pestilence and death – the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as Christian scriptures say — is as old as the first migration out of Africa thousands of years ago.

Europe experiences this repeatedly, with Africans being smuggled across the Mediterranean Sea in creaky, overcrowded boats headed mostly for Italy and Greece to try to go to wealthier countries such as German. Many have drowned.

Yet the optics are terrible for the new, seemingly optimistic, go-for-it Biden administration as it tries to rapidly change conservative policies of the country, not only from the past four dystopian years, but stretching back to Republican President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

Whether Biden will be a transformational president in the mode of F.D.R. or even L.B.J. remains to be seen. Much depends on how much Congress accepts his progressive agenda, especially the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats rule because Vice President Kamala Harris can break a tie vote.

On the border, at least families aren’t being separated as they were by the previous administration to deter others who want to make the trek to the United States from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador – known as the Northern Triangle – and Mexico. And kids aren’t put in cages.

But there are downsides. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, a critic of the Biden administration, released photos taken of children inside an overcrowded tent on the border at Donna, Texas, The Washington Post reported. The facility is run by Customs and Border Protection.

Even Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said these camps “are no place for children.”

By law, unaccompanied child migrants cannot be held more than 72 hours and must be transferred to health officials in the Office of Refugee Resettlement or placed with relatives within that time. But some reportedly are being held longer.

Border Patrol officials estimate they will take 16,000 children into custody in March, up to 22,000 in April and possibly 25,000 in May, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday. The kids have overwhelmed U.S. facilities.

One way to solve the crowding, Rep. Filemon Vela, the Texas Democrat from a border area said in a statement, “would be to return older teenagers to their home country and provide funding for an effort supervised by the United Nations to properly care for those teenagers on their return.”

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador blamed Biden for the surge of migrants.

“Expectations were created that with the government of President Biden there would be a better treatment of migrants,” he told a recent news conference. “And this has caused Central American migrants, and also from our country, wanting to cross the border thinking that it is easier to do so.”

“We need to work together to regulate the flow, because this business can’t be tackled from one day to the next,” López Obrador said.

Biden defended his handling of the migrant issue, repeatedly blaming his predecessor for creating a situation that has caused alarm and angst on both sides of the border, most assuredly among the Central Americans aching to enter the United States.

“The idea that I’m going to say, which I would never do, ‘If an unaccompanied child ends up at the border, we’re just going to let him starve to death and stay on the other side’ – no previous administration did that either, except Trump,” he said at his news conference Thursday. “I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it.”

He spoke a day after he appointed Harris the politically sensitive position of point person in trying to secure the border by reducing the number of migrants seeking refuge in America and to negotiate resolving gang violence and severe economic conditions in the four countries from which people are fleeing.

“It’s not her full-responsibility job, but she is leading the effort because I think the best thing to do is put someone who, when he or she speaks, they don’t have to wonder about, is that where the president is,” Biden said. “When she speaks, she speaks for me.”

Dealing with the push at the southern border has become a thorny issue, not only for Biden but a few of his predecessors as well. It may well become Harris’ full-time responsibility.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.