Joe Biden facing first major test amid migrant border surge

Republicans and Democrats await president’s opening move on illegal immigration

Migrants cross the shallow Rio Grande to gain entry into El Paso, Texas
Migrants cross the shallow Rio Grande to gain entry to El Paso, Texas
(Image credit: John Moore/Getty Images)

One of Joe Biden’s first acts as president was to sign an executive order that put an end to Donald Trump’s planned border wall with Mexico.

But while the symbolism of Biden wiping away Trump’s legacy on his first day in the Oval Office played well with his supporters, the Democrat is now facing a humanitarian and political crisis over the ongoing row about illegal immigrants.

Biden is planning a visit to the US-Mexico border as his administration “struggles to cope” with a surge in migrants crossing the Rio Grande, the river that divides the two nations, The Telegraph reports.

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US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorka warned in a statement last week that the number of people attempting to cross over into the US was approaching a two-decade high, leaving “overwhelmed” border control agents scrambling to process the new arrivals, the paper adds.

Official figures show that between October and February, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported around 400,000 encounters along the border - the highest number at that time of year since 2006. Many of the migrants are Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadoreans who are “fleeing violence, poverty and a pair of hurricanes”, The Economist says, while “Mexicans are coming to escape a contracting economy”.

CBS News reports that the US government is already housing “approximately 15,500 unaccompanied migrant minors, including 5,000 teenagers and children stranded in border patrol facilities not designed for long-term custody”.

According to government records seen by the broadcaster, “unaccompanied children are spending an average of 136 hours in CBP custody, well beyond the 72-hour limit outlined in US law”.

And if the backlog of asylum cases is not resolved quickly, Biden could be accused of “implementing policies that put unaccompanied minors in similarly harsh situations” to those reported during Trump’s tenure in the White House, writes the BBC’s North American reporter Anthony Zurcher.

Rock and a hard place

The situation on the border “poses a huge challenge” for Biden, who was “elected partly on his promise to enact more humane immigration policies than his predecessor”, says The Economist. As the rush of migrants threatens to “overwhelm an already rickety system”, Republican lawmakers are calling for stronger action that could “impede Biden’s ability to honour that promise”, the paper adds.

Indeed, Biden’s “political adversaries on the Right appear to be relishing the chance to use the situation on the border to their advantage”, says the BBC’s Zurcher.

Having seen the Democrats make political capital out of Trump’s border policies during his presidency, “Republicans are returning the favour”, with many GOP representatives viewing a strong stance on immigration “as a pathway back to power in future elections, including the 2022 mid-term congressional elections”, he adds.

The former president has also joined in the chorus of condemnation, issuing a statement this week that said: “We proudly handed the Biden Administration the most secure border in history. All they had to do was keep this smooth-running system on autopilot.

“Instead, in the span of a just few weeks, the Biden Administration has turned a national triumph into a national disaster.”

Biden also faces tensions and dissent within own party, with progressive Democrats to his left calling for migration policies that are “out of step with wider American opinion” and “championing impractical demands” such as an end to all deportations, says The Economist.

Yet if Biden is to deliver on his wider agenda, he may need to “avoid a confrontation with progressives, whose support he needs for other legislation”, the paper continues.

And that leaves the president in “a bind that could yet cost his party control of Congress in the mid-term elections next year“.

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Joe Evans is the world news editor at He joined the team in 2019 and held roles including deputy news editor and acting news editor before moving into his current position in early 2021. He is a regular panellist on The Week Unwrapped podcast, discussing politics and foreign affairs. 

Before joining The Week, he worked as a freelance journalist covering the UK and Ireland for German newspapers and magazines. A series of features on Brexit and the Irish border got him nominated for the Hostwriter Prize in 2019. Prior to settling down in London, he lived and worked in Cambodia, where he ran communications for a non-governmental organisation and worked as a journalist covering Southeast Asia. He has a master’s degree in journalism from City, University of London, and before that studied English Literature at the University of Manchester.