Migration to the border is climbing. Arrivals of unaccompanied minors are skyrocketing and are on pace to hit record levels. Border facilities – which are not designed for children – are grossly overcrowded and the Biden administration is scrambling to open more shelters and transfer migrant kids out of detention conditions that even President Joe Biden has agreed are “completely unacceptable.”
It is by any measure a pressing situation. But it is a “crisis”? It depends on who you ask.
Republicans have in the last several weeks pushed to brand the situation a crisis, or, more specifically, the “Biden border crisis” – a conveniently alliterative phrase practically designed for a Twitter hashtag.
“There’s no other way to claim it than a Biden border crisis,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said during a press conference at the border last month.
But the Biden administration had conspicuously avoided that single word, instead describing the current moment as a “challenge” or “situation” – an “especially difficult” one, but not a “crisis.” A 2,200-word statement from Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last month explaining the causes and consequences of events at the border only once used the word – in a reference to the coronavirus pandemic.
The administration’s efforts to avoid and rebuff the label have been so pointed that even a single, seemingly accidental use of the word “crisis” by White House press secretary Jen Psaki last month drew the attention of reporters.
Meanwhile, third parties are caught in the middle, wary of even inadvertently wading into the political muck by uttering that single word. Top U.S. military officers for securing North and South America spoke about the border during a Senate briefing last month avoided the term in connection with Biden’s policies and have even bluntly refused to weigh in on the rhetorical fight:
“I’m not going to go into the politics of whether we name it a crisis or not,” Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, chief of U.S. Northern Command, told reporters.
The messaging battle – played out in borderland press conferences and in hearings and on social media – is largely political. But it’s serving to paper over an incredibly complex situation, obscuring the contours of the moment and flattening the issues in the broader public discourse.
The surface-level politics are simple. The situation is politically convenient for Republicans, who are not in power in either chamber of Congress or the White House and are already focusing on revving their base for the 2022 midterm elections.
Biden’s general approval levels are steady and the recent coronavirus relief package – a measure no Republicans voted for – included individual stimulus checks and is overwhelmingly popular with the public. Former President Donald Trump, who enacted aggressively restrictive immigration policies, positioned immigration at the center of the party’s platform and Republicans are…