It is too soon to say that Joe Biden’s mostly sure-footed start as US president is over. It is all too easy to identify the subject that is likeliest to end it. Eerily absent from politics during the pandemic, which grounded would-be migrants everywhere, the Mexico border is back as a place of human anguish and political contention.

Over 100,000 people attempted entry into the US there in February alone, the highest monthly total since spring 2019. Some 9,500 were unaccompanied children. The numbers are liable to increase as winter conditions turn into a benign spring. Such are the demands on finite border facilities, the president has deployed the federal disaster agency to help out.

The recriminations come from right and left. This is what happens, say Republicans, when an administration liberalises both policy and rhetoric on immigration. Biden has dismantled some of Donald Trump’s harsher policies at the border, while aiming to give undocumented immigrants and their descendants a path to citizenship. At the same time, progressives say that the detention of children, in the words of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “never will be OK”.

Biden will have to end up disappointing both sides. It was right to abandon the most draconian policies of his predecessor, including the vainglorious wall against Mexico. But nor can the US allow the impression to take hold that it is newly lax. It leads to cruelly unrealistic hopes among arrivals, and to disaffection among Americans themselves.

Biden can start by reiterating that the border is, as his adviser Roberta Jacobson said last week, “not open”. His line so far has been characterised not by weakness as such, but by a lack of clarity. He should also enhance the federal agencies that deal with immigration, which have been weakened by Trump-era neglect and his own slowness to install new, permanent leadership. The judicial system for processing asylum claims is hopelessly backlogged, leaving applicants in extended limbo. It will take money and organisational skill to clear. Skimping in this area is the ultimate false economy.

In the longer term, the US will have to address some of the sources of the migration. It cannot by itself fix the hardship and instability in parts of Central and South America. That is for governments in the region. But it can devote more diplomatic and intelligence resources to the fight against drug cartels, which often cause people to flee, and human traffickers, who facilitate their journey. What Trump never took seriously was that border crossings are just the last stage of a long and sad process. There is no way to reduce them without taking a strategic view of the region’s many troubles.

A showdown between Biden and his own left seems unavoidable. The party’s desire to move past the xenophobia of the prior administration is understandable. But there is nothing innately illiberal about strict enforcement of border laws. As his vice-president at the time, Biden will know that Barack Obama was a prolific deporter. Without confidence in the southern border, voters are likely to sour on the idea of a generous, outward-looking US, including documented migration and the naturalisation of “Dreamers”.

The one consolation of the border crisis is that it marks the return of normal politics. Biden’s fiscal relief bill was a momentous achievement, but it commanded near-unanimity in the country. Most problems that await him as president do not. By draining immigration of political salience, the pandemic spared Democrats from having to think too hard about the subject. That privilege is ending, and with a vengeance.

Letter in response to this article:

Popular support for Biden stimulus is not unanimous / From Eric A Anderson, New York, NY, US