WASHINGTON (SBG) — After weeks of adamantly rejecting the label, President Joe Biden referred to “the crisis that ended up on the border with young people” in remarks to reporters Saturday, but the White House later backtracked, insisting the “crisis” he was referring to was not the immediate situation at the nation’s southern border.
“The president does not feel that children coming to our border, seeking refuge from violence, economic hardships, and other dire circumstances is a crisis,” press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. “He does feel that the crisis in Central America, the dire circumstances that many are fleeing from, that that is a situation we need to spend our time, our effort on.”
Apprehensions at the southern border hit their highest level in 20 years in March, as the Border Patrol detained a record number of unaccompanied children. Officials have projected border crossings could remain elevated into the summer.
Republicans mocked the White House for arguing over the semantics of what qualifies as a “crisis” instead of solving it. They also ridiculed memos issued Monday to Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees directing them to stop using terms like “illegal aliens,” instead favoring words like “non-citizen” and “migrant.”
“These priorities are almost a parody of left-wing governance: not securing the border, not a better plan for the children. Just woke proofreading,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a floor speech Tuesday. “This is not going to get the job done.”
Administration officials say the uptick in migration, which began last spring, is driven by a combination of factors, including the coronavirus pandemic, natural disasters, and crime and corruption in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Critics have laid blame on Biden’s policies, poor messaging, and a perception in Central America that U.S. borders are open.
“Through their words and actions, the Biden administration sent a clear signal that our border is open for anyone and everyone, and the world took notice,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., wrote in a Fox News op-ed Monday.
The White House might dispute that the border situation amounts to a humanitarian crisis or a security crisis, but it seems abundantly clear it represents a political one. President Biden has earned strong support from the public for his handling of the economy and the pandemic, but polls show even many Democrats are disappointed by his immigration policies.
A Quinnipiac University Poll released last week found only 29% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the border, while 55% disapprove. In a recent Associated Press/ NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey, 24% of respondents approved of Biden’s response to the surge of unaccompanied migrant children and 40% disapproved.
As public concern about the coronavirus begins to subside, worries about border security and illegal immigration are rising. Republicans have signaled they intend to make immigration a central issue in the 2022 midterm election campaign, as they press to retake control of the House and Senate.
“In advanced democracies and beyond, when the public gains the perception that borders are not fully controlled, that migration is taking place irregularly, it costs administrations some degree of support,” said Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University.
Republican governors, attorneys general, and law enforcement officials have lodged public complaints and filed lawsuits over Biden’s border policies. One of the most vocal critics, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, urged Biden last week to declare Mexican drug cartels foreign terrorist organizations in the fourth letter he has written to the White House about the situation.
Former President Trump claimed in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity Monday that the influx of migrants “could destroy our country.” He insisted the situation would have been avoided if Biden had left his policies in place.
“There’s never been anything like what’s happened at our border, and people are coming in by the tens of thousands. They’re walking in. All he had to do is leave it alone,” Trump said.
President Biden reversed many of Trump’s policies after taking office, including a program that required most asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases were processed. He also halted construction on the border wall and attempted to pause most deportations.
However, Biden continued Trump’s use of authority under Title 42 to turn away all single adults and some families, citing public health concerns. The administration is no longer applying that policy to unaccompanied children, and Mexico has refused to accept many families due to a law passed there last fall.
Immigration advocates have stressed migration previously surged when Trump was enforcing harsh border policies, and the current trends began when his administration was denying entry to nearly all migrants during the pandemic. Still, the record numbers of children arriving without families appear to be a response to Biden’s decision to revert to the pre-pandemic U.S. policy of allowing unaccompanied minors to stay in the country while their cases are heard.
According to the latest data obtained by The Washington Post, more than 20,000 teens and children are being held in Department of Health and Human Services shelters, and 2,200 more are in Border Patrol custody awaiting processing. It is taking an average of 33 days to release detained children into the custody of relatives.
Officials have attempted to speed up the unification process while also scrambling to find more space to house children safely until relatives or sponsors can be located and verified. They have streamlined some procedures, but Democratic lawmakers and immigrant advocates have pressed them to move faster and limit the use of temporary shelters.
President Biden’s efforts to address all this have left few satisfied on either side of the aisle. Progressives and immigration activists say he has retained too much of Trump’s agenda, while Republicans and groups that favor immigration restrictions argue he should reimpose the policies of his predecessor that he lifted.
“The sad irony is that the humanitarian, national security and public health disaster President Biden is now seeking to address could have been avoided in the first place if he had not taken a wrecking ball to existing policies and agreements that were in place when he took office,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
One of the most high-profile steps Biden has taken in response to the situation is delegating Vice President Kamala Harris to oversee efforts to address the root causes of migration. That is a long-term undertaking, though, and it is unlikely her work will have any immediate impact on the flow of migrants at the border.
"Over two weeks ago, President Joe Biden delegated the administration’s response to the humanitarian and security crisis at the southern border to you,” ranking Republicans on the House Judiciary, Homeland Security and Oversight Committees, wrote in a letter to Harris Monday, requesting a meeting with her. “However, it is unclear what, if any actions you have directed or plan to initiate to respond to the crisis that continues to worsen each day."
The administration has struggled to clarify Harris’ role since it was first announced. As Republicans heap blame on her for inaction over the border, officials maintain her responsibilities are focused on diplomacy and negotiating with Central American leaders.
During an unrelated visit to North Carolina Monday, Harris told reporters she had been coordinating the involvement of Cabinet secretaries to provide disaster relief, agricultural support, and other assistance to the region. Her office has also announced a planned trip to Latin America, but no dates have been confirmed.
“This is a complicated, complex issue that actually has been an issue for a long time,” Harris said. “And the work that we are putting into it now is work that is going to require a longstanding commitment beyond the administration’s. It is work that is not going to evidence its impact overnight because the issues are so intractable.”
Biden’s designated border coordinator, Roberta Jacobson, is set to leave her position at the end of the month, despite the unresolved challenges. Jacobson told The New York Times her assignment was always intended to cover Biden’s first 100 days, and she praised the work the administration has done building an immigration system that is “humane, orderly, and safe.”
“I briefed and worked in support of the vice president’s leadership on this issue,” Jacobson said. “Nobody could be more delighted to see the vice president take on that role. It didn’t have anything to do with my decision.”
The Biden administration has reportedly brokered agreements with Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras to temporarily increase their border security. Migrant apprehensions at the U.S. border slowed after similar pacts were reached under Trump.
The White House is weighing additional measures, including sending cash payments to Central America, and Biden has proposed more spending to address immigration and asylum backlogs in his fiscal year 2022 budget. He is also looking to revive an Obama-era program that allowed children to apply for asylum from their home countries.
“My sense is they understand the tasks at hand and are putting in place, impressively quickly, policies that are intended to address both the drivers of migration and the logistics of how to manage migration,” Hershberg said.
While most of the anger has come from the right, Biden’s continued reliance on Title 42 to send adults and families to Mexico has stirred frustration among progressives too. That policy has been challenged in court, and it is uncertain how the administration will handle such situations once the pandemic ends.
Although Biden paused construction of the border wall while the administration conducts a review of the project, recent reports indicate the federal government is still seizing private land. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also reportedly told employees recently that some work might still be done to plug “gaps” along the border.
Amid criticism from both sides for his response to the border, President Biden has stumbled into political controversy over other immigration issues. The White House has spent several days dealing with the fallout from an announcement Friday indicating that Biden planned to maintain a low Trump-era cap on refugee admissions for the current fiscal year.
Biden had initially promised to increase the cap from 15,000 refugees to 62,500, but officials claimed reaching that total was unlikely because the processing system was “hollowed out.” After swift backlash from Democrats, the administration clarified that Biden would consider raising the cap once 15,000 refugees were admitted, and a final figure would be set in May.
“As a policy matter, there is no valid policy reason to maintain the shockingly low refugee cap,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice. “As a political matter, President Biden will alienate a lot of his supporters by failing to turn the page on President Trump’s racism, xenophobia, and scapegoating of immigrants and refugees.”
The reaction underscored the challenges Biden and Harris face in attempting to solve a politically volatile issue that has vexed previous administrations: stricter enforcement will enrage the left, but more lax policies will mobilize the right. Crafting an approach that placates a broad swath of voters might not be possible, but regardless of what Biden does at the border, experts expect migrants will continue to trek north in large numbers until circumstances in the Northern Triangle improve.
“They need to double down on changing conditions on the ground because, with the levels of desperation we have now in those countries, large-scale population movements are inevitable,” Hershberg said.