WASHINGTON — With a rising number of migrants arriving at the southern border, pressure is mounting on President Biden from both sides of the aisle.
House Republicans have dubbed the situation “Biden’s border crisis” and suggested that the president’s decision to reverse policies put in place by his predecessor, Donald Trump, has caused chaos. Meanwhile, there is simmering opposition from progressives who feel Biden has not done enough to move away from Trump’s policies.
Speaking outside the Capitol on Thursday, Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., channeled Republicans’ recent focus on the rhyming children’s book author Dr. Seuss to take a shot at Biden’s immigration policies.
“What we are witnessing, of course, is Biden’s border crisis,” Katko said. “If you want to think of it another way, it’s disorder at the border by executive order.”
Katko’s appearance was part of the second event this week where Republican House members sought to highlight “Biden’s border crisis.” His comments referred to a series of executive orders the president has passed since taking office Jan. 20 that have been designed to overturn Trump’s immigration policies.
Specifically, the Republican House members focused on Biden’s decision to end Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which required asylum seekers to stay outside the U.S. as their cases were adjudicated. As a result of that decision, some 1,500 asylum seekers who were already enrolled in the program have been allowed into the country, according to Customs and Border Protection data released Wednesday. Biden also announced last month that unaccompanied minors will not be immediately turned away at the border.
While some asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors have been allowed to enter the country, many families of migrants and individual adults have been turned away under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Title 42 rule, a move that began under Trump and that the agency has said is designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
A total of 100,441 people attempted without authorization to enter the country along the southern border during February, according to the new CBP data. That is a 28 percent increase from the previous month. Unaccompanied minors — meaning children without lawful immigration status who attempt to enter the country alone or with someone other than a parent or legal guardian — accounted for 9,457 of those people.
That surge has left the Biden administration struggling to safely house the influx of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the southern border. This has forced large numbers of these children to fill bare-bones detention facilities designed for adults. According to data obtained by Yahoo News, as of Thursday morning 2,745 migrant children were detained in Border Patrol facilities. Roughly 200 of those children were apprehended Thursday, though some have been detained since as far back as March 1.
Legally, unaccompanied children should be held in such facilities only for up to 72 hours, after which they must be transferred into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services and placed in an appropriate childcare facility until they can be safely released to a parent or sponsor.
While Republicans have criticized Biden for not maintaining Trump’s policy that turned away asylum seekers and minors, some on the left argue that Biden’s handling of immigration is far too similar to his predecessor’s. A senior staffer to a prominent progressive House member argued that the president has not lived up to his campaign promise that he would do more to establish a fair and humane immigration system. That person also suggested Biden has failed to deliver on his vow to institute a moratorium on deportations.
“Our general view is that the administration can decide how to enforce immigration laws. … We can deport anyone who comes here seeking for a better life, or we can prioritize the greatest security threats,” the staffer said. “That was the hope for the Biden administration, and so far that hasn't been what's happening.”
Biden has taken steps to halt deportations. Last month, the administration issued an interim memo that directed Immigration and Customs Enforcement to focus its efforts on migrants who are national security threats or have criminal records. That policy, which is currently being challenged in court, applies to migrants who are already within the country.
Those who arrive at the border and are not seeking asylum or underage are largely being turned away.
Some immigration activists have rejected the distinction between deportation of immigrants who are already inside the country and those being turned away at the border. The group United We Dream has also argued that the Title 42 expulsions are an “unfair policy that uses COVID-19 as an excuse to keep people out of the country.”
Though some immigrants have been turned away at the border since last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been operating under new guidelines. That guidance asks the agency to focus “civil immigration enforcement and removal resources” on migrants who came into the country after last November and on “threats to national security, border security and public safety.”
“Like other law enforcement agencies, ICE has limited resources and must prioritize its operations accordingly,” an ICE spokesperson said. “As a result, ICE is focused on these priorities and the kinds of quality arrests and enforcement actions they produce.”
Along with concerns about ongoing deportations, progressives are raising alarms about conditions in which migrants are being detained while their cases are adjudicated. In January, Biden signed an executive order directing the Justice Department to stop contracting with private prisons. He suggested corporate profit motives lead to facilities that are less humane and safe. However, advocates were quick to note that the ban on private prisons did not apply to migrant detention.
Multiple members of Congress subsequently called on Biden to extend the executive order to privately owned immigration detention facilities. A source provided Yahoo News with a copy of a letter currently circulating among Democratic House members that will be sent to the administration next week. That letter, which multiple members have already signed on to, reemphasizes the concerns about private facilities and asks Biden to take the additional step of phasing out contracts that ICE has with local jails and prisons to hold migrants. The letter notes that there have been multiple allegations of abuse and poor conditions in these facilities.
Facing the influx of migrants — and the ensuing political drama — the Biden administration has sought to thread the needle. At a White House press briefing Wednesday, Roberta Jacobson, the administration’s coordinator for the southern border, stressed that the new avenues to enter the country are solely for “people who need protection” and are seeking asylum. She said that for others, the border is closed. Jacobson repeatedly emphasized this point in Spanish and argued that migrants should not attempt to come into the United States outside of legal processes.
“I don’t think anybody would say that coming to the United States in an irregular fashion is a good thing,” she said. “That’s why I’ve tried repeatedly to dissuade people from listening to those smugglers.”
Jacobson also argued that the administration is doing its best to “make sure that children are well cared for.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was questioned about the border during Wednesday’s briefing. Specifically, she was asked about using the word “crisis” to describe the current situation. She sought to reframe the discussion, saying the administration will “continue to work day and night to expedite the process of ensuring there are the resources and processes in place to move children from the Border Patrol facilities to the shelters.”
But Republicans have fixated on the fact that the White House has not described the border situation as a “crisis.”
“The first step, though, is to admit that there is a crisis,” Republican House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said outside the Capitol on Thursday. “It seems like the White House right now is in denial about the crisis.”
An administration official countered that the White House is not focused on terminology.
“Labeling it one thing or another is not going to change how we respond to this,” the official said.
Some immigration advocates expressed concern that efforts to politicize the latest situation may hurt the administration’s ability to pass significant immigration reforms in Congress.
“I think it was already going to be very politically challenging to legalize a large portion of the unauthorized population during a pandemic with an economic crisis and a significant number of Americans unemployed,” Sarah Pierce, an immigration policy analyst with the progressive Migration Policy Institute, told Yahoo News. But now she worries that a crisis at the southern border may make immigration reform an even tougher sell for the American people.
But Greg Chen, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told Yahoo News he is confident that the administration’s more measured approach to immigration will help maintain bipartisan support for reform.
Chen said that while the numbers of children and other migrants arriving at the border are rising, they’re “still very much manageable,” and dismissed fears that allowing people to seek protections in the U.S. will pose a public health risk to Americans in border states like Texas.
At the Capitol event, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Republicans are in fact eager to work with Biden on a long-term legislative solution for immigration reform. McCarthy suggested the president has rejected efforts to pursue a compromise.
“As Republicans, we know how to solve this problem. We could work with the administration to make it happen,” McCarthy said. “Last week I sent a letter to the president asking to sit down with him to work on ideas. … As of today, he still has not answered our letter.”
Biden did introduce an immigration reform bill with congressional Democrats last month. Democrats do not seem to have enough Republican support to pass immigration reform in a bipartisan manner.
The White House declined to comment on any potential meetings. However, the administration official said Biden is “deeply engaged on this issue.”
“It’s a priority now. That’s why he sent the bill to Congress on day one,” the official said. “We continue to be deeply engaged with the Hill on moving these priorities forward.”
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