WASHINGTON — Even before President Biden took office, immigrant rights advocates and foreign policy experts warned he could face an early test of his vision for a radically different and more humane approach to immigration. Hurricanes and a pandemic had battered El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in the late fall and early winter, leaving half a million people without homes and ready to make the dangerous trip to the US border.
Biden nodded to the challenges but counted on his significant experience with immigration. As vice president, he had taken the lead in the scramble to shelter migrant children arriving by the thousands without parents at the US-Mexico border in 2014. His White House made plans to address the gangs, government corruption, and poverty at the root of the rise in people fleeing Central America’s Northern Triangle nations.
But not even 100 days into his presidency, his administration appears to have lost the thread. Once again, thousands of unaccompanied minors have come to the border, entangling the new Biden administration in a familiar debate over the nation’s broken immigration system that has been cast in the old, familiar terms of “surge,” “crisis,” and “national security,” instead of framed around providing aid to asylum seekers, refugees, or migrant children.
So much for a new day on immigration.
“I can say quite clearly: Don’t come,” Biden told ABC in an interview this month, as he was put on the defensive over whether his approach to immigration is encouraging people to make the journey to the United States. “We’re in the process of getting set up — don’t leave your town or city or community.”
As they grapple with the influx, administration officials say they are working to reduce the time it takes to reunite unaccompanied minors with relatives, guardians, or other sponsors in the United States, and to meet the demand for beds. With the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they opened emergency intake centers in Dallas and Midland, Texas, to more quickly remove children from packed processing facilities at the border that were holding some 4,500 children. More than half had been held longer than the 72-hour legal mandate. Another roughly 9,500 children were in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The challenges come as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has said that the Biden administration is “on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.”
He and other administration officials have stumbled over how to describe the situation, as they seek to unwind an era of hard-line immigration policies put in place by former president Donald Trump without encouraging more migrants to come. They also don’t want to amplify Republican attempts to portray the border as being overrun, fueling the same ethnic anxieties and fear of demographic change that carried Trump to the White House in 2016.
“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 Wednesday as he announced Vice President Kamala Harris would lead the diplomatic effort to stem the flow of migration.
Migration and foreign policy experts from across the political spectrum sought to dispel notions that the current increase in migration is a national security crisis. Central American migration patterns tend to be seasonal, picking up in the warmer months and dropping off in the sweltering summer when the dangerous trek up north can become even more deadly.
The US Customs and Border Protection agency saw a 28 percent increase in people apprehended from January 2021 to February, from 78,442 to 100,441. But the agency recorded an even higher jump in 2019, under Trump, when total apprehensions rose 31 percent in the same time period, according to data compiled by researchers at the University of California at San Diego.
“It’s a challenge for the Biden administration, but the overall numbers that we see now aren’t that unpredictable based on previous years,” said Tom K. Wong, who led the study and is a senior fellow for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Yet, despite the predictability of the trends, the administration seems to have underestimated how many children would try to cross the border, the capacity of a hollowed out US asylum system to take in the minors — and the ability of drug smugglers to exploit the change in tone and swiftness with which Biden sought to implement a new vision of immigration.
“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,” Roberta Jacobson, Biden’s coordinator for the southern border, told reporters this month, describing the balance between responding to “the hope of people who need protection” and countering disinformation from drug smugglers.
On his first day in office, Biden overturned a ban on travelers from some Muslim-majority countries, stopped border wall construction, and fully reinstated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which temporarily defers the deportation of immigrants brought to the United States as children. He also rolled back Trump administration orders for harsher immigration enforcement in the country’s interior.
But at the border, the Biden administration has not changed a public health rule put in place last year under Trump that barred most people from seeking asylum in the midst of the pandemic.
Still, the number of unaccompanied minors has climbed after a federal court in November ruled that migrant children could not be immediately expelled.
House minority leader Kevin McCarthy and a delegation of fellow House Republicans this month headed to El Paso, Texas, where they stood near a section of border wall and blamed Biden for creating a national security crisis that has been exploited by human traffickers and is allowing terrorists into the United States — the latter a claim long debunked.
“This is a human heartbreak,” McCarthy said.
Immigrant rights groups and some Democrats have denounced the GOP for fear mongering ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, but have also raised concern about the conditions migrants face at the border. Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from a Texas border district, released photos to Axios of people sleeping on mats and tin foil blankets on the floors of a border processing facility in the city of Donna.
Leaving a processing facility in El Paso with Mayorkas and three other legislators on Friday, Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, tweeted what he saw: “100s of kids packed into big open rooms. In a corner, I fought back tears as a 13 yr old girl sobbbed [sic] uncontrollably explaining thru a translator how terrified she was, having been separated from her grandmother and without her parents.”
Scrutiny has only heightened as the Biden administration had not allowed reporters to enter the facilities, citing moves to close off tours to the media because of the pandemic. On Wednesday, the White House allowed one TV network into a facility to provide shared video to news organizations.
Biden officials say the pandemic and Trump’s dismantling of the asylum system have left them with a shortage of asylum officers, medical personnel, CBP officers, and immigration judges to process cases while keeping families safe in a pandemic. Allies also point to Trump’s delay of a presidential transition and Republicans stalling the confirmation of Mayorkas and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
“There is a freeze that occurs when there isn’t political leadership in place,” said former Obama administration housing secretary Julián Castro. “The prior administration was not being helpful, not making this transition a smooth one. All of these things came into play.”
But even as immigrant rights advocates and foreign policy experts have lauded the Biden administration’s immigration approach, some say it should have been more prepared to handle the seasonal increase. As vice president, Biden worked closely to mobilize Central American leaders and international financial institutions to address an increase in unaccompanied minors at the border. His current proposals stem from his past efforts to deal with violence and political instability in the region, which the United States helped fuel and that has now spanned three administrations.
The number of children crossing without their parents started to rise in fiscal year 2011, hitting a peak in 2014 when federal immigration officials apprehended more than 68,500 minors. The numbers fluctuated considerably after that but began to steadily increase again in 2018, under the Trump administration, reaching a new record of 72,873 children in the first 11 months of 2019. In those years, Trump slashed millions of dollars in aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala and rolled out harsh deterrence policies, including upending the asylum system and separating migrant families and children at the nation’s southern border.
Biden is attempting to regain control of the issue. His administration worked out a deal to provide Mexico with surplus doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in exchange for cooperation in containing migration from Central America, including taking in more expelled families. He sent envoys to Mexico and Guatemala ahead of his first news conference on Thursday and tapped Harris for her new diplomatic assignment.
“There is hope that this era of demonizing and criminalizing immigrants is over, but now we need to pick up the pieces quickly,” said Jacqueline Martinez Garcel, CEO of the Latino Community Foundation, a nonpartisan group that works with Latino and immigrant advocacy organizations to build Latino political leadership. “They have to tackle this with the same urgency that they are tackling the vaccine.”