There exists an â€œacute and immediate needâ€ for a border wall in the Rio Grande Valley â€“ Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, October 4, 2023.
â€œNoâ€â€“ President Biden when asked if a border wall was effective in halting illegal immigration, Oct. 5, 2023.
Aside from widening the administrationâ€™s credibility gap, the circumstances surrounding the announcement that some 20 miles of border wall construction had been approved revealed yet again the White House staffâ€™s amateurish and clumsy handling of a major national and politically charged campaign issue.
The initial effort to low key the construction plan involved Mayorkasâ€™ Friday night publishing in the Federal Register a waiver of 26 environmental regulations to clear the path for the project, clearly a decision designed to avoid public disclosure for as long as possible.
It was â€“ as Friday night news dumps always become â€“ a triumph of hope over experience.
When the plan was uncovered, the reaction was swift and unsparing. Biden was accused of the rankest hypocrisy, obliterating his campaign pledge â€“ â€œnot another foot of wall will be constructed by my administrationâ€ â€“ and callously adopting the anti-immigrant policies of his predecessor.
Mayorkas attempted to walk back his â€œacute and immediate needâ€ justification, arguing the decision did not represent a change in policy and echoed the presidentâ€™s claim that additional wall construction would accomplish nothing in the way or border control.
Nearly two days elapsed before the administration settled on a damage control message â€“ that the funds for the construction were appropriated by Congress in 2019 and that a refusal to spend them as directed would violate the law.
Critics were having none of it. The penalty for such a violation â€“ if any â€“ isnâ€™t clear, and any legal challenge by Congress to withholding the money was unlikely or would take years to resolve.
Moreover, the construction could have been blocked by simply refusing to waive the environmental regulations, a step Mayorkas could have taken.
Further, the president could have gone back to Congress and requested the funds be redirected, an action he said heâ€™d taken previously unsuccessfully.
Only the terminally gullible can accept the administrationâ€™s claims.
The decision was an example of the inevitable result of political imperatives colliding with policy determinations.
As border crossings shattered records and migrants flooded by the tens of thousands into places like New York, Chicago, Boston, Denver and Philadelphia, creating enormous fiscal crises and social disruptions, the pressure on the Biden administration to act became overwhelming.
Democratic mayors like New York Cityâ€™s Eric Adams and Democratic governors like Illinois J.D. Pritzker laid the blame at the White House door and demanded massive federal assistance.
The presidentâ€™s â€œno wall constructionâ€ rapidly deteriorated and became untenable. Public approval of his handling of immigration had fallen into the mid 20 percent range, dragging his overall approval with it.
Combined with broad dissatisfaction with his performance on the economy, inflation and crime and a growing sense that his physical stamina and mental acuity have waned with age, Biden is increasingly vulnerable despite his determination to seek a second term.
In the early days of his administration, he boasted of the repeal of the border control and immigration restrictions put in place by his predecessor, most notably the construction of the wall which he ridiculed as a waste of money.
He handed responsibility for immigration matters to Vice President Kamala Harris whose first official act was to hand it back, quickly recognizing that it was an intractable and potentially politically damaging problem.
The administration can deny the president caved in to the political pressure â€“ particularly that exerted by leading Democrats â€“ but the cold reality is that stubbornly clinging to his nearly three-year record on immigration policy had lost all viability.
The policy change was handled poorly, to be sure, and the Administration would have been far better served by a straightforward admission that stronger steps were necessary in light of the severity of the crisis. Whether the construction of the wall will be sufficient to quell the critics remains to be seen.
Next time, though, donâ€™t bother with the Federal Register.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University in New Jersey. You can reach him at cgolden1937@gmail.