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The situation on the southern border is Biden’s first political crisis as president ― whether he wants to admit it or not

A 7-year-old girl from Honduras, left, walked with Fernanda Solis, 25, center, also of Honduras as they approached a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing center to turn themselves in while seeking asylum moments after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on March 21 in Mission, Texas.Julio Cortez

History proves that every American president faces a crisis and often many of them. Presidents don’t have control over when they happen, but they can make critical decisions as to how to respond.

Make no mistake that less than 100 days into office, President Biden is facing the first real crisis of his tenure in the White House. The unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied minors streaming over the southern border is a test unlike, say, the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, while Biden did inherit some of the causes of this current crisis, this recent situation had not yet developed when he took office, and, unlike, COVID, there is no obvious playbook as to what happens next.


While the situation on the border may not feel like it is not a full bore political problem, that could change. Biden’s aides have been good at managing the publicity around the border so far, but the numbers don’t lie. The Washington Post found government data suggesting there could be as many as 17,000 unaccompanied minors entering the country this month alone. To add to the severity of the situation, 300 kids currently being housed by the US government have tested positive for COVID-19.

To be sure, as some immigration experts have found, part of what is happening is a regular seasonal uptick in border crossings this time of year, even if it is happening a bit ahead of schedule. But those numbers don’t fully appreciate that an unprecedented number of those arriving are children, and need more care and services than do adults and families.

The images, which the Biden administration has tried to prevent the press from showing, are heartbreaking.

Where before it was Republicans traveling to the border to hold press conferences in an attempt to divert attention from Democrats passing the popular American Recovery Plan Act, now a number of Democrats are beginning to ask a lot of questions of the Biden administration. These are basic questions like, “What is the plan here exactly?” The Biden administration doesn’t have an answer, but on Wednesday Biden put Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the response.


Watch for the border to become a much bigger deal. The discussion could go to a new level on Thursday when Biden holds his first-ever press conference. In addition, Biden administration officials are planning to visit one Texas facility holding migrant children. Democrats in Congress are also planning to visit this facility and there is even talk about Biden making a trip to the border soon as well.

The administration is also making more plans like taking over a San Antonio arena to serve as a temporary place to house migrant children coming over the border.

To be clear, this situation on the border, fueled largely by violence and political instability in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras has now spanned three presidents. So far Biden aides have tried to tamp down the idea that it is a “crisis” and have tried to show that, no matter what, Biden is more humane than President Trump was in terms of language and approach. However, this suggests that Biden does have an actual approach, but instead there is just a lot of confusion as to what the policy is right now.


In addition to the obvious humanitarian concerns that stem from overcrowded facilities for children amid a pandemic, if things get more drastic at the border it could also impact both the domestic and foreign policy agenda of the young administration.

Republicans are hungry to change the subject away from Trump and anything Democrats want to go on the offensive about in Washington. Immigration could become the second most important agenda item in America after the pandemic, at a time when Democrats want to address gun violence and pass a large infrastructure bill. The southern border, after all, has been a political and cultural flashpoint in American politics going back over a century and helped fueled the rise of Trump to the White House.

In terms of foreign policy, the Biden administration has put a lot of focus on containing China while also building up alliances in Asia. At the same time, they have tried to counter Russian aggression. But as one Texas Democratic US Representative wrote in the New York Times, there might be pressure for Biden to pivot back to this hemisphere and try to deal with the underlying issues that force people to flee to the United States. Such an attempt would include many countries, including Canada.

The stakes are high for Biden in the next few weeks.

James Pindell can be reached at Follow him @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.