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Opinion: Biden’s stunning reversal on border barriers

Opinion by Jon Gabriel

(CNN) — Former President Donald Trump promised to build a border wall that Mexico would pay for during the 2016 campaign but the neighboring country never did. Candidate Joe Biden vowed “not another foot” of the border wall would be built during his presidency. Now President Biden has decided to build it.

Immigration might be the strangest issue in politics.

What used to be a bitter dividing line has quickly become bipartisan, causing whiplash among activists on both sides of the metaphorical fence. This week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas wrote “it is necessary to waive certain laws, regulations, and other legal requirements in order to ensure the expeditious construction of barriers and roads.”

Despite this, when Biden was asked Thursday if he believes border walls work, he answered, “No.”

But Biden couldn’t ignore the problem forever. In September alone, the US Border Patrol apprehended more than 200,000 migrants crossing the US-Mexico border unlawfully — of course, they couldn’t count the people who got away.

This marks the highest total of the year and a large increase from August, which had about 181,000 arrests. And these crossings are expected to remain high in the near term, as one senior US Customs and Border Protection official told CNN.

Border states, especially Arizona and Texas, have demanded federal support for years, seeing their resources strained and desert cities overrun. But it wasn’t until red-state governors started bussing migrants to northern climes last year that the issue grew more urgent in the Democratic party.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams flew to Latin America this week to discourage migration, pleading that the Big Apple is “at capacity.” More than 100,000 migrants arrived in the city in the past year.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the influx to Chicago an “untenable situation,” noting “the federal government’s lack of intervention and coordination at the border.” The governor reported more than 15,000 migrants arriving in his state in the past 13 months.

The fact that each metropolis is designated a “sanctuary city” adds to the irony.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 72% of Americans believe the situation along our southern border is either a “crisis” or a “major problem.” With the next presidential election only 13 months away, Biden finally decided to act.

It’s about time.

While big cities get the headlines, border communities have been racked with unprecedented numbers of unexpected guests. Yuma, Arizona, located in the southwest corner of the state, has been reeling since Biden attempted to suspend the “Remain in Mexico” policy. That matter is still working its way through federal courts as the Biden administration negotiates a new agreement with Mexico.

Dr. Robert Trenschel, president and CEO of Yuma Regional Medical Center, said his facility spent $26 million from December 2021 to November 2022 on migrant care.

“The city of Yuma has 100,000 people, and we’ve had over 300,000 people cross the border here,” Trenschel said. “That’s three times the population of Yuma coming across the border. We’re the only hospital which is within a three-hour radius, which means they come here.”

As a result, Yuma residents need to travel well over 100 miles for basic medical services such as neonatal care, according to Trenschel.

El Paso has seen more than 2,000 people seeking asylum per day, up from 350-400 a few weeks ago, according to Mayor Oscar Leeser. “The city of El Paso only has so many resources and we have come to … a breaking point right now,” the mayor said.

If New York City is “at capacity,” border communities passed that status years ago.

Building a barrier along key routes between the US and Mexico shouldn’t be as controversial as politicians make it. Neither a wall nor a fence is a cure-all, but a common-sense tactic to mitigate illegal crossings.

Raphael S. Cohen, a political scientist at the nonpartisan RAND Corporation, notes that a border wall may succeed in curbing illegal immigration and provide “political space” for addressing systemic problems.

“The proposed wall on the US-Mexico border — like all previous walls — should be viewed as a means to an end, rather than an end unto itself,” Cohen wrote in 2019.

Elisabeth Vallet, director of the Center for Geopolitical Studies at the University of Quebec in Montreal, agrees, calling barriers “a norm of international relations, and a solution in the quest for security.” She notes that in 1990, there were only about 15 barriers in the world; as of 2022, there were 74.

No wall will stop non-citizens overstaying their visas or flying to the states and never heading back home. Well-funded cartels and bad actors will try to evade new physical barriers as they have in the past. But a wall will drastically reduce historic numbers in the short term, allowing the federal government to work with foreign governments and reinstate policies that have proven effective.

But what should be a win for the White House is turning into a muddled mess.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre continues to dodge questions while Biden bizarrely claimed that the border wall he approved won’t work. Despite allowing Mayorkas to authorize the move, Biden has vaguely blamed Congress.

“I’ll answer one question on the border wall,” Biden said to reporters in the Oval Office Thursday. “The border wall — the money was appropriated for the border wall. I tried to get [Congress] to reappropriate it, to redirect that money. They didn’t, they wouldn’t. And in the meantime, there’s nothing under the law other than they have to use the money for what it was appropriated.”

“I can’t stop that,” the president added. Actually he could, just as he has for two-and-a-half years, but it has become politically untenable.

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