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Democrats rush to Biden’s defense on border surge

Democratic leaders are rallying to defend President Biden’s handling of the migrant surge at the southern border, where the detention of thousands of children has threatened to spark a humanitarian crisis — and undermine Democratic promises to tackle the dilemma with more compassion than former President Trump.

The issue is a prickly one for Democrats, who spent the last four years bashing the Trump administration’s approach to border arrivals, which included a particularly controversial policy of separating children from their parents to deter Central American families from making the trek.

While Biden has shifted sharply away from such draconian practices, the sheer volume of new arrivals — many of them unaccompanied children — has put a profound strain on the capacity of border authorities to process the detainees and move them to safer, more sanitary facilities — a process complicated by social distancing protocols adopted during the coronavirus pandemic.

A recent CNN exposé described those detention centers, overseen by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as “akin to jail cells and not intended for kids.” 

Still, Democratic leaders are downplaying the nascent crisis and rallying around Biden, expressing confidence that their White House ally will prioritize the welfare of children as he tackles the growing emergency.

“It will be nothing like what we saw in the Trump administration of babies being snatched from the arms of their parents,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday during a press briefing. “I trust the Biden administration’s policy to be based on humanitarian[ism] and love of children rather than political points or red meat for their Republican base.”

Under current law, migrant children detained at the border should remain in the custody of CBP for no longer than 72 hours before being transferred to facilities overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a branch of the Health and Human Services Department.

Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said party leaders are watching the administration closely to ensure those guidelines are followed. 

“There is a process for this. The Biden administration will move toward that process, and we will hold them accountable, just like we did the prior administration, to ensure that they’re following the law,” Aguilar told reporters this week. “But this is a process that is rooted in compassion. And that’s the difference between the prior administration and this administration.”

The spike in border arrivals has highlighted the challenge facing border officials, even when they harbor the most humane of intentions.

In February alone, CBP officers encountered more than 100,000 migrants attempting to cross into the Southwestern states — a 28 percent increase over the previous month and almost three times the number in February 2020.

Of those, almost 9,500 were unaccompanied minors, up 61 percent from January. And agency documents unearthed by both CNN and The New York Times revealed that, on average, those children are being held in CBP custody longer than the 72-hour cap provided under the law.

Administration officials have sought to stem the growing tide by discouraging Central American migrants from making the long trip north.

“The border is not open,” Roberta Jacobson, Biden’s southern border coordinator, said tersely from the White House on Wednesday.

Yet Jacobson also acknowledged that the more lenient immigration policies of the administration — which include proposals to extend citizenship to millions of people living in the country illegally — likely encouraged the recent migrant spike.

“Surges tend to respond to hope, and there was a significant hope for a more humane policy after four years of, you know, pent-up demand,” she said.

The developments have not been overlooked by Republicans on Capitol Hill, who launched a media campaign intended to highlight the swelling border crisis — and the Democrats’ struggles to address it.

The GOP strategy is reminiscent of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and hard-line, hawkish views on border issues that helped propel him to the White House in 2016. Congressional Republicans are now reviving aspects of Trump’s playbook in their bid to win back the House and Senate in the 2022 midterms.

“Biden has created a crisis on the border that he won’t admit; 100,000 illegal immigrants were encountered just last month. Put that in perspective. That is larger than the hometown of Scranton, Pa., of our President Biden, and now it’s only growing month after month,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has requested a meeting with Biden about the border, said Friday on Fox News.

Biden “tears the wall down at the border, but he put one around the Capitol,” McCarthy added. 

On Monday, McCarthy will lead a delegation of a dozen House Republicans on a tour of the border and a migrant processing center in El Paso, Texas. The group includes a handful of swing-district Republicans such as Reps. Yvette Herrell (N.M.), Maria E. Salazar (Fla.), Carlos Gimenez (Fla.), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (Iowa) and Tony Gonzales (Texas).

The planned visit follows a news conference outside the Capitol this week where roughly 40 House Republicans bashed what they call the “Biden border crisis.” At times, lawmakers seemed to be competing to see who could utter Biden’s name the most.

“You have thousands of people crossing illegally into the United States every single day. Border states are getting overrun. It’s a drain on their resources. There are superspreader caravans coming across,” Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said. “And this was all done by President Biden, and President Biden can address and reverse this policy. … We’re calling on President Biden to reverse his policy that created this Biden border crisis.”

Added New York Rep. John Katko, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, “It’s disorder at the border by executive order, to channel Dr. Seuss.”

But Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who represents a majority-Hispanic district in Riverside County, argued that the GOP’s “reflexive, nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment” is harmful to the U.S. economy.

“If you were to suddenly get rid of 8 million people, our economy would contract significantly,” Takano told The Hill, while Republicans railed at Biden’s immigration policies just steps away at their press conference.

“Why a path to citizenship? Well, it means your Social Security is more sound. That means Medicare is on a solid footing. That’s an argument that every American, I think, can appreciate. … We have to recognize the contribution that [immigrants] make to the economic dynamism they provide to our society,” he added.

Biden is no stranger to the issue of border surges. As vice president under former President Obama, he focused on federal efforts to improve conditions in the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — where most of the migrants originate. The idea is that, by helping those nations reduce corruption and tackle poverty, fewer residents will want to leave — a strategy that will be included in a comprehensive immigration reform package currently being drafted by Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) and other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“You don’t address this until you deal with the Northern Triangle issues,” Aguilar said.

While they work to finalize their comprehensive reform package, House Democrats are racing ahead with their immigration agenda, scheduling votes next week on a pair of bills providing a pathway to citizenship for migrant farmworkers, immigrants with temporary protected status and the “Dreamers” who were brought to the country illegally as children.

Tags border surge Donald Trump Immigration Joe Biden John Katko Kevin McCarthy Linda Sanchez Mark Takano migrants Nancy Pelosi Pete Aguilar southern border Steve Scalise Texas

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