Border issues nothing new but pose challenge for Biden, says Baker Institute expert

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What’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border is neither new nor the result of recent policy changes by President Joe Biden, but the situation could pose a threat to the administration's immigration reform efforts, according to an expert from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at the Baker Institute, argues that politicians such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy don’t have the facts on their side when they talk about the number of migrants at the border and the potential for rising crime.

“Cartel activity is no different today than in previous years, including the four years of the Donald J. Trump administration," Payan wrote in a new blog post for the Baker Institute. "Cartels continue to bring drugs across the border, largely sidestepping obstacles along the way. Cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines continue to flow, as they did throughout the pandemic, because drug trafficking organizations are highly adaptable and flexible. No policy in the now 50-year-old drug war has been able to stem the flow of drugs across the border.”

He said the usual immigration patterns — not Biden's policies — are behind the rise in migrants coming to the border.

Credit: University.
Credit: University.

“So far this year, immigration patterns — including those involving unaccompanied minors — are no different than they were in 2020 or 2019," Payan wrote. "A quick look at the number of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border shows that the count goes up each spring and summer, and that it does not seem to be correlated with the U.S. government’s efforts to stop the flow.

“As of today, the case cannot be made that Biden’s policies are causing higher numbers of unaccompanied minors and other immigrants at the border," he continued. "The migrants currently number over 90,000 a month, and appear to include those who have been waiting on the Mexican side (under Trump policies) to be paroled into the U.S.; those who are part of long-established migrant flows; and, perhaps, some who may think it is easier to enter the U.S. under Biden.”

However, Payan warns that the Biden administration must ensure the situation remains in hand.

“Even if the numbers are similar to previous years, easing immigrants into the U.S. to await their immigration hearings could send the wrong signals — and send a number of additional migrants north, overwhelming the system and, worse, jeopardizing Biden’s efforts to reform the immigration system in 2021,” he wrote.

“To prevent this outcome, the Biden administration must accelerate steps to, first, devise a plan to invest in Central America; such investments must involve Mexico, the private sector and public funds," he continued. "The plan must also ensure that public safety and security in Central America improves. These are the major push forces for migrants arriving at the border.”


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Founded in 1993, Rice University’s Baker Institute ranks as the No. 1 university-affiliated think tank in the world and the No. 1 energy think tank in the world. As a premier nonpartisan think tank, the institute conducts research on domestic and foreign policy issues with the goal of bridging the gap between the theory and practice of public policy. The institute’s strong track record of achievement reflects the work of its endowed fellows, Rice University faculty scholars and staff, coupled with its outreach to the Rice student body through fellow-taught classes — including a public policy course — and student leadership and internship programs. Learn more about the institute at or on the institute’s blog,