Border crisis creates new risks for Biden
President Biden is facing a growing dilemma at the southern border that shows few signs of abating: the number of unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States steadily increasing in recent weeks.
Thousands of migrants have crossed the border in Biden’s first six weeks in office, many of them unaccompanied minors. The influx has tested the administration’s resources and ability to quickly implement its own strategy as Republicans sound alarms over what they have deemed a crisis of Biden’s making.
The Biden administration is rapidly adapting its approach to meet the need for space and staffing in a reflection of the seriousness of the situation.
“President Biden has asked senior members of his team to travel to the border region in order to provide a full briefing to him on the government response to the influx of unaccompanied minors and an assessment of additional steps that can be taken to ensure the safety and care of these children,” White House spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a statement.
Officials are reportedly working to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency involved, and The Washington Post reported that the administration is looking to convert family detention centers into processing facilities to more rapidly screen migrant children and their parents.
Those moves come a few weeks after the administration reopened a facility for migrant children in Texas despite Biden’s fervent criticism of the use of similar facilities during the Trump administration.
Experts said the influx of migrants seen in Biden’s first weeks in office is not significantly higher compared to past surges, but cautioned that the Trump administration’s efforts to make it more difficult to enter the country could complicate efforts to handle the challenge.
“There are plenty of instances in which there have been more people, but the past administration went out of its way to dismantle the institutions that make for a functioning immigration system,” said Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University.
“So what this administration is having to do is to rapidly ramp up the capacity to process the people who arrive at the border, to figure out how to house them while their requests for immigration relief are adjudicated … and figuring out how to get them, once they’re cleared epidemiologically, to family members who can care for them while they work through the immigration system,” he added.
Biden administration officials have discouraged migrants from the Northern Triangle region in Central America from making the trek to the U.S. border, warning the journey is dangerous, the United States lacks the capacity to process large numbers of people and that the majority of migrants are being turned away at the border.
Still, border agents are apprehending thousands of migrants a day, and even some Democrats have warned that the situation could develop into a full-blown crisis in the coming weeks.
Texas state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democrat who lives in the border town of McAllen, told The Hill the influx of migrants is fast becoming a crisis and that officials there do not have the resources they need to process the migrants or to test them all for COVID-19.
He said the Biden administration’s move to allow people to remain in the country while they await their immigration proceedings — a so-called catch and release practice that was banned under former President Trump — is encouraging migrants to make the dangerous trip, despite pleas from the White House that people stay home.
“It’s gotten worse,” Hinojosa said. “I don’t think, quite frankly, the Biden administration was aware of what’s happening on the ground here, which you can understand because they’re just coming in and trying to get people up to speed with what’s happening, but I don’t think they were aware there were that many coming across. The Border Patrol is overwhelmed, they’re throwing their hands up because they don’t know what to do.”
The Border Patrol reported averaging about 3,000 arrests per day in January. Officials have not disclosed the total number of apprehensions in recent weeks, but Reuters reported that Border Patrol agents arrested roughly 4,500 migrants on Wednesday alone, a number that rivals peak apprehension numbers in 2019 when Trump threatened to close down the border.
Biden made unraveling Trump’s immigration policies a priority upon taking office. The new administration halted construction of the border wall and halted the Migrant Protection Protocols that required migrants to remain in Mexico while awaiting processing while vowing to reunite families separated during the last four years.
“We certainly have a different approach,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday when asked if Biden’s shift in approach was encouraging migrants to make their way to the U.S. border. “We understand the outcome and the impact of that, but we are using every tool at our disposal, and we will use every official we can to convey clearly this is not the time to come.”
Republicans are looking to raise pressure on Biden to move authoritatively to address the issue.
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) on Friday requested a meeting with Biden, saying he feels “compelled to express great concern with the manner in which your administration is approaching this crisis.”
House Republicans have asked the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing on the border surge.
In a statement released Friday, Trump unloaded on Biden, accusing him of creating the crisis.
“Our border is now totally out of control thanks to the disastrous leadership of Joe Biden. Our great Border Patrol and ICE agents have been disrespected, demeaned, and mocked by the Biden Administration. A mass incursion into the country by people who should not be here is happening on an hourly basis, getting worse by the minute,” Trump said.
At the same time, liberals have expressed anger over the reopening of housing facilities for unaccompanied minors that were used under Trump.
The Pentagon confirmed Friday that the Biden administration may use a military base in Virginia to house unaccompanied minors as facilities along the border reach maximum capacity.
John Amaya, the former deputy chief of staff for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under former President Obama, told The Hill that Biden has done admirable work so far in unwinding Trump’s policies.
But he said before any comprehensive immigration bill is passed, Biden will need to have convinced lawmakers and the public that the border is secure, immigrants are being vetted, and that the entry process is seen as fair by Americans and migrants alike.
He said that will require Senate-confirmed agency heads and ground-level leaders that the Biden White House has been slow to put in place at ICE, Customs and Border Protection, and Health and Human Services.
“They’re doing a great job reviewing everything done by the last team and trying to do away with the Frankenstein monster Trump created and to try and institute a fair and just system that adheres to international laws and our own laws — that’s a huge and wonderful step,” Amaya said.
“Where they need a little more assistance, and it’s an internal decision, they need to put Senate-confirmed heads of agencies in place,” he said. “The workforce, officers, agents, they need that Senate-confirmed leadership and it’s sorely missing. It makes a profound difference when you have those leaders in place.”