One has to admire the chutzpah of Kamala Harris. Less than 24 hours after Title 42 expired, there she was, merrily clinking glasses at a Democratic Party soirée in a wealthy Atlanta suburb. When a journalist asked about the possible fall-out from the termination of Trump’s pandemic policy, which swiftly turned back immigrants at the border, she was typically nonchalant. “I hear that everything in the last couple of days is going rather smoothly,” she replied. There was no mention of the 30 migrants who had been bussed to her home in Washington DC from Texas the evening before; nor of the deep misgivings expressed by officials who work on the border. Everything, you see, was going “smoothly”. Nothing to see here.
In Delaware the following day, Joe Biden did his best to keep up the act, opting to go for a bike ride near his beach house. When he bumped into a gaggle of reporters, he broke into a laugh and told them that post-Title 42 America is clearly “much better than you all expected”. Everything was still going smoothly. Nothing to see here.
To some extent, Biden and Harris can be forgiven for displaying a certain level of self-satisfaction. Today marks one week since Title 42 expired, and the expected surge of migrants is yet to materialise. Quite the opposite, in fact. The number of illegal crossings seems to have dropped; short-term bed capacity appears to be increasing; the country’s southern borderlands have not descended into anarchy. As the media has enjoyed pointing out, America’s immigration crisis appears to be waning.
Except, I suspect, it isn’t. Overshadowed by the gleeful coverage in recent days was one story that, more than any other, hints at the chaos to come. On Friday, footage from the Central Processing Center in El Paso showed an alarming level of overcrowding. The site, according to Texas Congressman Tony Gonzalez, has a maximum capacity of 1,000 migrants; on Friday, there were 6,000.
This hardly came as a surprise to those, such as Gonzalez, for whom the border crisis is a matter of everyday politics. America’s immigration numbers have been soaring for months: as of Friday morning, the Border Force had more than 24,000 migrants in custody — twice the average daily number last November.
The more significant problem here, however, is more complex than a straightforward numbers game — and it extends beyond the practicalities of the border issue. Of course, stories abound of governmental and administrative failure on either side of America’s crossing with Mexico. There’s the smartphone app required to apply for asylum that often doesn’t work, the arbitrary nature of the decisions over who is allowed through, and the inhumane conditions that plague so many migrant centres.
But the real failure of America’s immigration system only becomes apparent once those hurdles are cleared. When an illegal migrant is detained in the US, they have to appear before an immigration court before they can be deported. And at present, the average waiting time between an arrival and the issuing of a “Notice to Appear” before a judge at one of the country’s 66 immigration courts is four and a half years. As Art Arthur, a former immigration judge, recently put it, the system is “well past broken”.
So in terms of remedying the greater problem — of the administrative dysfunction that underscores the entire system — the recent reduction in numbers change nothing. As a recent investigation by RealClear revealed, it doesn’t take much to overwhelm the current programme. In Atlanta, there is a four-year waiting time for just 1,757 people; Baltimore’s court is “mostly booked” with fewer than 3,500 cases.
And even if these backlogs were miraculously cleared, it is uncertain whether terminating Title 42 will stem the future flow. According to federal records, ICE had already eased off using it in the months before it expired: in the second half of 2022, a monthly average of just 4,000 migrants were expelled under the programme. Overall immigration continued to increase and America’s creaking system continued to flounder. In other words, scrapping Title 42 was a smokescreen — a distraction that provided cover for a failing political class that has given up solving a decades-old problem.
Nor is this incapacity unique to America — if anything, it is a feature of almost every modern Western democracy with high levels of immigration. Last year, for instance, an unprecedented surge saw Canada’s population increase by one million for the first time. Next week, it looks to be the turn of the United Kingdom, with a government report set to show migration doubled last year.
The case of the UK is particularly instructive, not least because “being tough on immigration” has frequently been viewed as a vote-winner for the Conservative Party, especially since Brexit. Even today, the country generally views levels as too high. It has been striking, then, to watch the British Right attempt to explain away the current crisis at its first National Conservatism conference this week.
During her keynote speech, home secretary Suella Braverman failed to address whether the dramatic rise in 2022 might have something to do with her own party’s inability to devise a successful immigration policy during the 13 years that it has been in power. Instead, she suggested that British workers should be trained to fill shortages among occupations such as lorry drivers and fruit pickers.
If that seems like an obvious alternative to importing foreign labour, that’s because it is: in 2020, the Conservative Government launched a campaign to recruit more UK-based workers for seasonal farm roles — but the programme was scrapped a year later after too few people signed up. Braverman’s proposal has been tried and failed. Just as with Biden and Harris, the poverty of imagination is astounding: in America, they hail the expiration of a mediocre immigration policy as a victory; in the UK, they simply recycle rejected ones.
In the coming weeks, it is not inconceivable that Britain and America’s immigration crises will be framed as polar opposites. On one side of the Atlantic, a smiling Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will assure voters that the immigration crisis is over; on the other, Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman will try to convince voters that their glossy “new” policies will make sure it is over soon. But for all the optics, the truth is that both sets of leaders find themselves in a similar situation. With an election year coming, they each sit proudly atop two creaking immigration systems that they are unable to fix but will have to defend against a fired-up opposition. Perhaps then it will finally become clear that everything isn’t going smoothly.