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A U.S. Border Patrol agent instructs asylum-seeking migrants as they line up along the border wall after crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico on a raft, in Penitas, Texas, U.S., March 17, 2021.

As thousands of migrants, many of them children, attempt to cross the US southern border, stretching the immigration system's ability to process and integrate them, President Joe Biden now finds himself facing a challenge that has bedeviled presidents and Congress for decades: how to reform an immigration system that everyone agrees is broken, but which no one can agree on how to fix.


The problem is, in principle, straightforward: On the one hand, most Americans recognize the need to control immigration into the world's most prosperous country. But on the other, the US has a long border that is difficult to secure, many businesses that are eager to hire undocumented workers, and millions of people living in countries to the south who see the perilous trek north as their only way out of a life of poverty and violence. As a result, for decades the US' two major political parties have decried the treatment and processing of illegal immigrants, while the increasingly dysfunctional legal immigration system serves the needs of no one.

The issue has become a true third rail of American politics, inflaming partisan passions like almost no other. As the share of Americans who are foreign born returned to historic highs after a decline in the 1970s and 1980s, concerns about immigrants putting downward pressure on American wages and accelerating a rapid pace of cultural change primed a generation of voters to be receptive to a message of shutting down the border. Recent polling from Pew found that 68 percent of Americans believe it is important to increase security along the US-Mexico border, though that number rose to 91 percent among Republicans (versus 49 percent of Democrats). It also found that 83 percent of Republicans supported increased deportations (31 percent for Democrats), while just 48 percent of Republicans supported establishing a path to legal residence for illegal aliens (compared to 82 percent of Democrats). Tapping into this backlash was, of course, critical to Donald Trump's success in 2016 and his continued appeal among GOP voters.

The Democrats, meanwhile, generally support more immigration on humanitarian grounds and because they see Hispanic voters as a key part of their coalition. Unions, another important Democratic constituency, welcome new low-wage workers as potential future members.

And so where Republicans put a focus more on border enforcement and, in the pre-Trump era, meeting labor shortages, Democrats emphasize broader pathways to legal entry and permanent citizenship. The two sides cannot agree on how to make it all work together.

The current crisis at the border has sent both sides to their familiar partisan corners. Republicans, and even some moderate Democrats, say the recent increase in asylum seekers is due to Biden's promises of looser immigration policies. This narrative is supported by press reports of Mexican officials and migrants who say that Biden's message of more humane treatment for migrants is one reason they set out for the US.

Meanwhile, the large number of children seeking asylum has stretched the capacity of the system to quickly process them, resulting in unaccompanied minors being housed in immigration centers that Democrats decried during the Trump administration, prompting calls from Democratic lawmakers to quickly expand processing capacity.

With Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, isn't this an opportunity for them to pass the reform they want? Not really. The issue is too toxic and there are divisions within the Democratic party itself — progressives who want to ease the admission of migrants and some moderates whose position is closer to that of the GOP.

Democrats in the House last week in fact declined to take up a comprehensive immigration solution, agreeing only on narrower legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship for residents who were brought to the US illegally as children (the so-called Dreamers) and farm workers. Both of these bills attracted bipartisan support in the House but they are unlikely to find a 60-vote supermajority needed for passage in the Senate, where even Republicans like Texas's John Cornyn or South Carolina's Lindsay Graham who favor a path to citizenship for Dreamers will condition their support for the bill on including other things, such as increased border security or a nationwide, mandatory use of electronic verification of citizenship for new hires. Neither of these policies are acceptable to enough Democrats to forge a compromise solution.

So Biden's hands are tied. As he takes executive action to accelerate the housing and processing of the surge in juvenile migrants, he will probably encourage more of them to come, fueling Republican criticism that he supports open borders — a message that the GOP would love to take into the midterm elections next year. But if Biden instead takes the path of former president Barack Obama and increases deportations to discourage migration, he will come under attack from progressives in his own party who will accuse him of turning his back on a pressing human rights issue.

In this context, the White House appears to be hoping that it can outsource some of the enforcement to Mexican authorities. But with larger numbers of desperate people arriving daily, little light at the end of the legislative tunnel, and midterms looming next year, this could shape up to be a defining crisis for Biden.

Jon Lieber is managing director of Eurasia Group's United States Practice and host of GZERO's US Politics In 60 Seconds.

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