In 1686, three laws of motion were unveiled, revolutionizing science.
Perhaps the most well-known is the third: for every action in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction. School children are taught this principle in the tenth grade.
So when President Joe Biden reversed former President Donald Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy (a move upheld by the conservative-leaning Supreme Court) this past August without preparing for or anticipating the obvious practical consequences, one has to wonder what he was thinking.
Trump’s initial position in 2019 amounted to political pandering—the delivery of a campaign promise premised on race-baiting. It was neither humane nor rooted in sound policy—reversing America’s decades-long practice of allowing asylum seekers awaiting resolution of their pending claims to wait in the United States.
His action, in turn, set off a reaction: Democratic elected officials around the country were “outraged”—and that outrage took the form of fist-shaking at press conferences, in op-eds, and through newly enacted laws proudly proclaiming their localities “sanctuary” havens where all would be welcome.
Cue Joe Biden, who ran, in part, on undoing Trump's immigration policies. The problem? In making good on that campaign promise, the federal government failed to enact any necessary accompanying measures or preparation to ensure the reversal would be successful.
In turn, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida stepped in to fill the political and governmental void, despicably using migrants as human pawns in a chess match with Democrats, during the home stretch of the election season.
While there were those in the media and on Twitter who were shocked—shocked!—to find out there was gambling going on in here (so to speak), the strategy of busing vulnerable people across state lines is neither new nor partisan.
While the tactic appears to have been pioneered by white supremacists who bused Black Americans living in the South across the Mason-Dixon line in the early 1960s, similar maneuvers have been deployed by Democratic mayors of big cities for decades.
In 1987, for example, New York City Mayor Ed Koch began a “relocation program” aimed at solving the city’s homeless crisis, in part, by handing out one-way bus tickets. New York City’s program existed in one form or another for over twenty years, relocating more than 17,000 people to other localities, including Southern states like Texas, Florida, and Georgia. Twenty percent of these trips were made with costly airline tickets, for which former Mayor Mike Bloomberg budgeted $500,000 annually.
Abbott and DeSantis’ cynical and inhumane twist on this age-old stunt unleashed not only a political firestorm—it brought broader policy and governmental failure to the surface, demonstrating the very real strain on social services that accompany the complex nature of a broken immigration system.
Washington, D.C.’s mayor declared a public emergency. The Massachusetts governor called in the National Guard. And New York City's scramble to address unexpected housing needs strained the city’s shelter system to the brink. All the while, border cities a fraction the size are inundated by many more migrants every day—cities that never proclaimed themselves to be “sanctuary” havens.
The reality is that Trump and the Republicans were certainly playing politics when they enacted the 2019 policy, but in reversing it without anticipating the tens of thousands of people who would inevitably cross the border (and the logistical and practical pressure that would create), Democrats—however well-intentioned—proved themselves to not only be just as political, but incompetent to boot.
Political virtue signaling becomes self-defeating when accompanied by governmental incompetence—exposing the very real challenges associated with well-intentioned positions, failing to address them, proving your opposition’s point, inadvertently moving your own supporters to the other side, and, in turn, setting the issue back.
That is true of any major policy decision, but none is more politically potent with greater humanitarian impact than immigration.
While extremist Republican governors are busy scoring cheap political points, Democratic mayors are struggling to match their pro-immigration rhetoric with social services, all while lives hang in the balance.
This begs the question, where is the president?
Immigration is, by design and necessity, a federal issue. And the federal government isn’t addressing it. So, for all the righteous and justified anger at Republican governors, make no mistake, this debacle lies squarely at the feet of the president. And the White House has been running from it. For evidence, look no further than the travel schedule of the administration's designated point person.
Two years ago, another president abdicated his responsibility on what was plainly a federal crisis—the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic—leaving states and localities scrambling. He lost reelection.
Winners want the ball, and the American people respond to leadership.
So what now?
Stop being a spectator and get in the game. Start by making government work.
The federal government must intervene to take control with a truly centralized asylum system. Absent that, the government is only making resolving these claims harder by ensuring they won’t be able to track down who went where.
It requires personnel, money, and a plan.
Provide resources to local governments struggling to find accommodations and provide social services.
Address the current housing crisis the way they did the unaccompanied minors program. There, the federal government coordinated the program with state and local governments, identifying capacity, handling transportation, and distributing funding. To ensure local governments' participation, they smartly provided financial incentives for localities willing to house those in need.
Today, the federal government should immediately inject the resources necessary to increase the capacity of the immigration court system mired in backlogs. This includes providing necessary counsel and translation services to help ensure that we get people who deserve asylum a decision quickly so that they can begin to build their life here.
And the next time, when the president moves to unilaterally enact massive policy, his advisers would serve him well by keeping a certain seventeenth-century physicist in mind: anticipate the equal and opposite reaction coming their way and plan accordingly—particularly with lives at stake.