(I think I wrote this in a way to make clear that I don’t want the Biden administration, under any circumstances, to harm asylum seekers’ right to due process and protection at the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead of appealing to morality, however, this post instead emphasizes cold, strategic calculation. Its tone errs on the side of cynicism.)

Imagine that you’re a political operative in the Biden administration or at the Biden campaign. You believe that the stakes are as high as they could be in 2024, as your insurrection-backing, authoritarian-trending, ethically challenged opponent enjoys a slight lead in most polls.

You want the migration situation at the U.S.-Mexico border to be as far off the national radar as possible. That means no chaotic images of mass migrant arrivals seeping into any “mainstream” media outlets (that is, all media to the left of Rupert Murdoch’s properties). No screaming “border crisis” headlines, no big-city mayors going off-message.

You know there’s no way to “solve” the broken U.S. border management, immigration, and asylum systems in the five-plus months that remain until Election Day. You also know that any policy change that toughens conditions for migrants at the border usually brings a short-term reduction in their numbers, even if it doesn’t last for very long. (We call this “wait and see mode”: migrants and smugglers hold back for a while to see what the new policy’s consequences will be, and then numbers recover.)

With others in the presidential brain trust, you have been preparing a measure that would refuse asylum access to people at the border, moving to deport them quickly. This measure would get triggered not by asylum seekers’ protection needs, but by how busy the border happens to be. It would shut down the right to asylum whenever the number of migrants arriving at the border exceeds a certain daily average.

That measure appears in legislation that failed in the Senate in February, and that is being reintroduced—and likely to fail again—this week. An asylum “shutdown” is also likely to be at the heart of a legally dubious executive order that the White House is getting ready to issue.

Perhaps you lament rolling back gravely threatened people’s right to petition for asylum on U.S. soil. (That’s a right that emerged after World War II, has been a U.S. international law commitment since 1968, and has been part of U.S. law since 1980.) You know you’re watering down this right, turning the humanitarian clock backward, and perhaps condemning thousands to possible death, torture, or imprisonment.

But perhaps you justify that, somehow, by telling yourself that you’re “saving democracy.” By pushing the migration numbers down for a few months, you reduce the salience of the border issue, one of the Trump campaign’s main themes, thus weakening the former president’s prospects for a re-election that could be catastrophic for the American experiment.

But then, so far this year, something unexpected has happened: migration at the border has declined even without harming asylum. The number of Border Patrol apprehensions lately is half of what it was during the record-setting month of December 2023. There has been no normal springtime increase. March was less than February, April was less than March, and the number of new arrivals seems to be dropping, too, in May.

The main reason appears to be a migration crackdown inside Mexico. Mexican authorities report stopping about 120,000 people per month, way more than they ever had before. (Mexico is also in the midst of a presidential election, with voting on June 2, a week from Sunday.)

This is causing enormous hardship for people stranded in Mexico, but as a hard-boiled political operative, that doesn’t concern you. What counts is that migrants are solidly in “wait and see mode” for now. Your campaign is enjoying a relative lull in media coverage and public consciousness of the border situation.

Maybe you won’t view it as politically necessary to eviscerate the right to asylum after all. Or, at least, not until cracks begin to show in the virtual wall that Mexico has built. No cracks are yet visible: May numbers are dropping at the U.S.-Mexico border, and also further south in the Darién Gap.

Even by your amoral political calculations, then, it makes no sense to drop an asylum-curtailing executive order right now. Do it too soon, and migrants’ “wait and see” period could fade before November, risking sharp migration increases at the border in the weeks and months leading up to Election Day.

If you share this view, though, then you’re not getting through to your colleagues. According to Politico, the White House is likely to drop the executive order in June.

A June announcement would likely come after Mexico’s election on June 2, half a dozen people familiar with the timeline told West Wing Playbook. It would also allow the White House to roll out the policy before election season really heats up and before the conventions later this summer. The current timeline will also put the president on track to announce the executive action before his debate with Trump at the end of the month.

That makes no sense. If your goal is to keep migration down before Election Day, here is a likely scenario for how this might play out—and it’s not what you’d want:

  • The June announcement of an executive order causes migration to drop further from levels that, apparently due to Mexico’s crackdown, were already among the lowest of the Biden administration.
  • The effect is that migration remains low throughout the summer.
  • But soon enough, migrants and smugglers discern that many asylum seekers can still be released into the U.S. interior. For instance:
    • So far this fiscal year, one-third of migrants apprehended by Border Patrol came from countries that (a) are not in Mexico and Central America, and (b) are not Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, or Venezuela, the four states whose citizens Mexico has agreed to accept as deportees under the Biden administration’s post-Title 42 “asylum ban” rule.
    • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) runs about 30 deportation flights per month to those countries, which means ICE’s aerial deportation capacity there is perhaps 4,000 people per month. But about 55,000 people per month from those countries have entered Border Patrol custody this year. These countries’ citizens’ probability of removal is quite slim, even with the executive order in place.
  • As has happened with so many previous short-term policy changes—most prominently Title 42—migration levels start rising, as the “wait and see” period eases. This could happen by early fall, just in time for the most intense period of the election campaign.

That’s why the possibility of a June executive order is perplexing, even from a cold, amoral, ends-justify-the-means political operative’s perspective. Why drop a nuclear bomb on the right to asylum when the migration numbers are already down, and when the effect on border arrivals is not likely to last long?

(My main problem with this piece’s argument is that it appears to green-light issuing an asylum-eviscerating executive order not in June, but later in the election cycle, should an increase in migration occur at that point. The only response is a grim one: if migrant arrivals do indeed start moving upward in the summer or early fall, a White House crackdown would be inevitable. The administration would be certain to take a drastic step to knock the numbers down ahead of Election Day.

In that miserable scenario, it would at least be less awful to see the administration drop its “asylum shutdown” executive order—which until then had been sitting, unreleased, on a White House hard drive—instead of adopting some new, even more harmful escalation on top of an executive order in place since June.)