As it turns out, it’s complicated to be a nation that doesn’t expel children.
President Joe Biden has been under fire for the growing number of unaccompanied children and teenagers coming across the border with Mexico and the increasingly crowded shelters in the southern United States.
In response to the criticism, he tapped Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday to oversee the diplomatic efforts to help control the flow coming from the Northern Triangle countries ― El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
“So this new surge we’re dealing with now started with the last administration, but it’s our responsibility to deal with it humanely and to stop what’s happening,” Biden said.
There are more than 16,000 migrant children in federal custody right now, twice the previous record. Adults and families are continuing to come, too. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has acknowledged that they are “on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.”
But the heavy flow is not entirely unique to the Biden administration. There were also significant spikes under President Barack Obama in 2014 and President Donald Trump in 2019.
The difference from the Trump administration, however, is that Biden refuses to summarily kick children out of the country, sending them back to potential danger in Mexico or the home countries they fled. Instead, the Biden administration is reverting to the legal system of putting children through immigration proceedings to determine whether they can stay in the U.S. ― a system that takes more time and means they need to stay with family or sponsors.
“What do people think that we’re supposed to do? Allow an 8-year-old child or 14-year-old child to just stay there in Mexico and be subjected to crime?” asked Julian Castro, who is the former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and served as housing secretary under Obama.
The Biden administration is struggling under a heavy logistical challenge. There are nearly 5,000 minors in Customs and Border Protection custody; more than 3,000 of them have been in there longer than the legally allowed limit of three days. These facilities are not designed for children or long-term stays. But until the government can find more space in shelters and centers operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, the detention facilities will remain overcrowded.
In March 2020, Trump invoked Title 42, a provision from a 1944 public health law that allowed him to close the border and send undocumented immigrants back to their home countries under the pretense of halting COVID-19. It also happened to fit nicely with the administration’s policies of limiting immigration.
Biden is continuing Title 42 restrictions for most adults and some families ― a policy being challenged in court ― but he is allowing minors to stay in the country while they undergo immigration proceedings. The challenge has centered around how to safely and humanely care for these migrants while they’re in federal custody, before they’re released to family members and sponsors in the United States.
In other words, the nation is required by law to temporarily care for undocumented minors. Trump’s stance, not Biden’s, was the departure from what is normal.
And at the first press conference of his presidency, Biden made no apologies for his decision to no longer apply Title 42 to minors.
“First of all, all the polices that were underway were not helping at all. Did not slow up the amount of immigration. And there’s many people coming. And rolling back the policies of separating children from their mothers ― I make no apology for that. Rolling back the policies of remain in Mexico sitting on the edge of the Rio Grande in a muddy circumstance with not enough to eat ... I make no apologies for that,” he said.
Republicans have grasped on to the matter as a political issue and, not surprisingly, think Title 42 restrictions should have stayed in place. They have placed the blame squarely on Biden’s shoulders, arguing that he and his administration are simply too welcoming to migrants and need to be more like Trump. They claim the borders are “open,” even though Biden is continuing to turn away most migrants.
“I think in the ’22 election, people are going to have a lot of buyer’s remorse,” said Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, on Fox Business Network Tuesday. “Joe Biden didn’t, you know, come to town and say, ’Hey, I’m going to open your borders, I’m going to close your schools.′ This is not what he promised.”
“They are sending the message that anyone who makes the dangerous journey to cross the border will be rewarded,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) tweeted statements implying that Biden was more “humane” than the previous two Democratic presidents, and that was a problem.
An administration official, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said the president is willing to talk about real solutions with Republicans.
“He is open to discuss what Republicans might want on the table. They’re not even asking,” the official said. “Yeah, this is a political issue. And they are just getting away with murder right now.”
Much of ― and perhaps too much of ― the discussion around the border problem has focused around the administration’s rhetoric.
Officials have tweaked how they talk about the situation, which they argue is not a “crisis” ― a term that even some moderate Democrats have been willing to use. They have tried to balance speaking compassionately about migrants who might be making the journey to the United States while also trying to persuade them to stay in their home countries.
“We are not saying, ‘Don’t come.’” “We are saying, ‘Don’t come now,’ because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process to them as quickly as possible,” Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas told reporters on March 1.
On March 16, however, Biden was more definitive: “I can say quite clearly don’t come over.”
Immigration advocates reject the idea that the surge in unaccompanied minors is primarily because of statements by the Biden administration ― or that it’s necessarily a bad thing for America to seem like a more humane place than it was under Trump. Yes, some people may see the United States as a more attractive destination under Biden than Trump, but it’s not the main factor driving the migration. There are seasonal fluctuations, a backlog of demand to enter after the border closure, natural disasters and continuing violence and economic hardship in Central American countries.
At his press conference Thursday, Biden said that while he should maybe be “flattered” that people are coming over because he’s a “nice guy,” he just doesn’t believe it’s true.
“There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March. It happens every year,” he said. “In addition to that ... does anybody suggest that there was a 31% increase under Trump because he was a nice guy and he was doing good things at the border? That’s not the reason they’re coming. The reason they’re coming is that it’s the time they can travel with the least likelihood of not dying on the way because of the heat in the desert, number one.”
And the numbers began rising before Biden took office and a spike happened in 2019, even though Trump was pushing anti-immigrant policies.
“Trump separated families in 2018. It was a worldwide scandal on the front of every newspaper in the world. And the largest increase in arrivals at the border happened after that,” said Frank Sharry, a longtime immigration advocate and executive director of America’s Voice.
“This is not an invasion of enemy forces at our southern border, and Republicans are trying to paint that picture,” said Sergio Gonzales, executive director of The Immigration Hub. “These are children who are escaping really terrible, awful conditions who are making a very long, scary journey because the conditions at home offer no other alternative. We are a very well-resourced and strong and powerful, great country. We’re able to deal with this challenge.”
But even some Democrats say the administration did not seem fully prepared for the logistical challenges awaiting it. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose district touches the border with Mexico, told The Washington Post that days after Biden took office in January, he called the White House and warned them about the surge.
“I said, ’Hey, I just want to let you know what’s going on. We need to get a handle on this before it gets out of hand,’” he recalled. “Even within a week, I was already calling the White House to say, ‘Hey guys, you’ve got to take a look at it.’”
Biden officials strenuously dispute the notion that they weren’t aware of what was going on. They point to other factors that impeded them from hitting the ground running ― the fact that Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) delayed swift confirmation of Mayorkas, Trump administration officials refused to fully cooperate with the Biden transition and simply the challenge of restarting programs to take care of unaccompanied minors that were stopped under Trump.
A Biden administration official said that as soon as they took office on Jan. 20, they started assessing the situation, putting COVID-19 protocols in place for children and looking for more licensed beds at shelters ― a process that can take months because of state licensing procedures.
“We came in with one hand tied behind our back because the Trump administration really didn’t set us up for success, and we immediately hit the ground to try to address the situation. ... The numbers started going up under Trump. It wasn’t like on Jan. 20, the floodgates opened and everybody came in. These numbers have been increasing. It’s just that they were deported,” the official said.
“The only thing they could have done would have been continuing to expel children while creating the infrastructure necessary to receive them. That really would have been, as far as I can see, the only other alternative ― which is an absolutely unacceptable alternative in my view, especially when it comes to vulnerable kids,” added Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas).
On Wednesday, Rep. Filemon Vela, a Texas Democrat whose district is on the border with Mexico, suggested that Biden actually should send some of the minors back.
“One logical approach to this situation would be to return the older teenagers to their home country and provide funding for an effort supervised by the United Nations to properly care for those teenagers upon their return,” Vela said.
BuzzFeed News reported that Department of Homeland Security has considered a number of possibilities for reducing the crowded conditions at the border, including something along the lines of what Vela outlined ― using Title 42 to send back 17-year-old migrants, or 16- and 17-year-olds.
In response to a question from HuffPost about the White House’s response to Vela’s suggestion, an administration official told reporters in a briefing Thursday simply that “there is no announcement to any new policy on unaccompanied children.”
The House recently passed two pieces of immigration legislation, giving a pathway to citizen to young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers” and to 400,000 immigrants living with temporary protected status, and legal status to millions of undocumented farmworkers.
Passing any sort of immigration reform always seemed like an uphill battle in the Senate, but it certainly hasn’t been made easier with the current situation at the border as Republicans look to use it as a political issue to hit Biden and divide the Democratic Party.
“We’ve now been talking about ‘messaging’ for two full weeks almost. I’m seeing that on TV and in print,” Escobar said. “And that’s two full weeks of not holding all of us, myself, accountable. For members of Congress and the White House: What’s the solution?”
The administration official emphasized that unless Congress does something, the long-term issues will remain.
“If we don’t fix that, you’re going to continue to have challenges regardless of who is in office,” they said, adding, “This is not about who’s president. It’s the fact that we need Congress to actually change the immigration laws.”