President Joe Biden is a nice guy. On Thursday, at his first formal press conference, he apologized to reporters for giving long answers. He expressed sympathy for political opponents who had criticized him. He worried about the surge of migrants along the Southwestern border, but he said he would hold off on visiting the area, because “I don’t want to become the issue” or bring “the Secret Service and everybody with me to get in the way.” It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump, the king of spite and vanity, saying such things.
We’re far better off with Biden, a kind and decent leader, than we were with Trump. But sometimes, a president has to be stern. When thousands of people from other countries cross uninvited into the United States, some of them wearing Biden shirts or saying they’re here because Biden is welcoming—and when our facilities for housing unaccompanied migrant children overflow as a result—the president needs to send a clear message, with no inviting undertones, that the deluge must stop. For nearly an hour on Thursday, reporters challenged Biden to do this. He couldn’t.
“You’ve said over and over again that immigrants shouldn’t come to this country right now,” PBS NewsHour reporter Yamiche Alcindor told the president. “That message is not being received. Instead, the perception of you … as a moral, decent man is the reason why a lot of immigrants are coming to this country and entrusting you with unaccompanied minors.” In response, Biden pointed out that “the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back.” But he acknowledged that the appreciative perception of him tugged at his emotions: “I guess I should be flattered people are coming because I’m the nice guy.”
As reporters continued to ask about the border, Biden emphasized the generous things he had done and would do to help families in Latin America and migrant children stranded in the United States. He promised more beds and money to take care of the children, and he pledged that the government would move quickly to unite them with their relatives in the United States. These answers were commendable, but without an accompanying firmness about shutting down the influx, they sent a tempting signal to families considering migration. Biden ridiculed the idea that a mother would send her son on the long journey to America because “Joe Biden is a nice guy and he’ll take care of him.” But the president also affirmed that he would do just that, putting kids “safely in a place where they can be taken care of.”
ABC reporter Cecilia Vega told Biden that she had just met a boy “who walked here from Honduras. … His mother says that she sent her son to this country because she believes that you are not deporting unaccompanied minors.” Vega asked the president: “Is your messaging, in saying that these children are and will be allowed to stay in this country and work their way through this process, encouraging families … to come?” Later, NBC reporter Kristen Welker asked Biden whether he had scrapped Trump’s strict border policies too quickly, before he had an alternative system in place. Biden deflected these practical questions by invoking moral indignation: “Rolling back the policies of separating children from their mothers, I make no apology for that. Rolling back the policies of ‘Remain in Mexico,’ sitting on the edge of the Rio Grande in a muddy circumstance with not enough to eat, I make no apologies for that.” These Trump policies were an affront to “human dignity,” said Biden.
Again and again, Biden described migration as a desperate gambit by people who otherwise faced lethal violence or poverty. They had “no choice,” he said. Anyone in Latin America hearing these words, or a description of them, could reasonably conclude that the president of the United States felt morally bound to let them in. Biden shunned the Republican argument that the journey should be made futile and more costly by blocking everyone, including minors, at the border, as Trump did. Instead, the president proposed to disincentivize migration through aid to Latin America, making it preferable to stay home, rather than making it harder to get into the United States. When Univision reporter Janet Rodriguez pointed out that it would take many years to improve life in Latin America—and asked Biden how he would “realistically and physically keep these families from coming to the U.S.” in the meantime—he had no good answer.
Biden is capable of being tough. He made clear that he would crack down on China. He pointed out that he had passed the COVID relief bill despite GOP opposition, and he told Senate Republicans they could choose to compromise and have a say in legislation or, implicitly, get beaten again. He also signaled that he was willing to curtail or eliminate the filibuster if Republicans abused it. And he warned his subordinates that if the government failed to speed up the process of reuniting migrant families, officials responsible for that process would lose their jobs.
Not once, however, did Biden direct such sternness at migrants themselves. He simply can’t bear it. We’ve replaced Trump, a frightening brute, with a man who feels the plight of every person seeking a better life in the United States.
I admire Biden for that. I don’t understand why I’m entitled to live in this bountiful country just because I had the good luck to be born here, while billions of other people are locked out. But that leaves me, Biden, and our nation with a problem. If we can’t bear to close our doors to anyone who comes knocking, millions of people will arrive here. We’ll end up with overflowing detention centers and suffering, or we’ll have to release more and more migrants into the United States. It’s a recipe for chaos. I’ve barely begun to think through what that would mean. It doesn’t look as though Biden has, either.