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Biden officials urge patience on immigration amid border surge
President Biden is facing pressure from all sides as migration swells at the southern border - posing one of the first major policy tests for his administration.
Progressives have hit Biden officials over reopening a housing facility for young migrants used briefly during the Trump administration. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and others argue the facilities are inhumane and represent a step backward for the new administration, which has made a point to distance itself from the Trump era on immigration in particular.
Conservatives, meanwhile, say Biden's approach has encouraged increased migration to the southern border, with former President Trump joining the chorus of critics in a speech on Sunday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
But Biden officials and immigration advocates are urging patience, arguing the new administration will need time to make meaningful changes to a system that was upended over the last four years.
"Putting in place policies to manage the situation in an orderly way is absolutely the correct approach, and I think they've done everything they can to communicate clearly and unambiguously about the direction they're headed and what it's going to take to get there," said Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
Biden met virtually with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Monday, and the two discussed the situation at the border. At a White House press briefing that same day, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asked for patience, saying the Biden administration inherited a deep well of problems.
"It takes time to build out of the depths of cruelty that the administration before us established," Mayorkas said. "What we are seeing now at the border is the immediate result of the dismantlement of the system and the time that it takes to rebuild it virtually from scratch."
Biden campaigned against Trump's immigration policies, and he moved swiftly to halt construction of the border wall and rescind policies that prevented many migrants from entering or remaining in the United States. But the new president is quickly finding that immigration remains a difficult issue to solve, particularly amid a global pandemic.
Customs and Border Protection reported an increase in individuals attempting to cross the southern border in January, averaging about 3,000 arrests per day, compared with almost 30,000 for the whole month last year. Hundreds of unaccompanied children have crossed the border daily in February, straining the government's resources.
Mayorkas, however, disputed that there was a "crisis," even as the administration has urged asylum-seekers not to come to the border right now and has been forced to reopen a Texas facility for young migrants to avoid crowding during the pandemic.
"We are not saying don't come. We are saying don't come now," Mayorkas said at Monday's press briefing.
Mayorkas also said the administration would retain a Trump-era policy that cited public health laws to turn away or deport asylum-seekers amid the pandemic.
"The fact of the matter is that families and single adults are indeed being returned under the COVID-19 restrictions," he said, calling the move an obligation "in the service of public health."
Allies of the Biden administration have echoed the Homeland Security secretary's rhetoric calling for patience, saying it will take time to get the necessary infrastructure in place domestically to handle the flow of migrants and to make planned investments in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to address root causes of migration.
Officials have pointed to comprehensive immigration legislation that is percolating in Congress as a way to make significant changes, though they acknowledged finding Republican support in a 50-50 Senate could be difficult.
"I think a lot of the focal point is going to be on legislation but so much to do on the administrative side," said Sergio Gonzales, executive director of the Immigration Hub, an advocacy group.
Mayorkas on Monday pledged to allow those separated under Trump's "zero tolerance" policy to reunite and remain in the U.S. if they so choose.
"Our overarching goal is, of course, to be as humane as the law provides, to be as restorative as the law enables us to be to bring justice to these families," he said.
Trump spent four years reshaping the immigration system to limit the flow of both legal and illegal immigrants. The former president changed asylum rules, restricted travel from certain countries, implemented a "zero tolerance" policy that separated families amid heightened enforcement at the border and diverted funds to construct a border wall. During the pandemic, Trump imposed restrictions on the issuance of green cards and temporary work visas.
Biden has lifted the green card restrictions, and he scrapped Trump's "remain in Mexico" policy, replacing it with a system that has now opened three ports of entry where asylum-seekers can enter to the U.S. to await their hearing date.
"As more migrants catch wind of the reimplementation of 'catch-and-release,' the surge on our border will be unimaginable," House Homeland Security Committee ranking member John Katko (R-N.Y.) said when Biden implemented those changes.
Biden's decision to unwind many of Trump's policies immediately upon taking office won him plaudits from his own party, but he now faces calls from some progressives to go further and completely overhaul the immigration system by dissolving Immigration and Customs Enforcement and ending the use of private detention facilities.
The Biden administration drew fire last week from progressives for reopening a government facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, to house up to 700 migrants ages 13 to 17. The facility was open for roughly one month during the Trump administration.
The White House was quick to point out that it was not separating children from their parents as had been done during the previous administration, but the use of migrant facilities for teenagers still prompted criticism from Ocasio-Cortez and others who pointed to Biden's repeated criticism on the campaign trail of Trump's treatment of young migrants.
Biden's initial steps have also provided a reliable line of attack for Republicans, who have been quick to argue that the president's swift reversal of Trump's hard-line policies has all but invited migrants to try and enter the United States illegally.
Trump used his CPAC speech to blast Biden's immigration views in particular, echoing his rhetoric of the 2016 campaign by claiming the new administration's policies were encouraging "some of the most evil people on the planet."
"We can't afford the problems of the world, as much as we'd love to. We'd love to help. But we can't do that," Trump said. "So they're all coming because of promises and foolish words."