Joe Biden campaigned for the presidency with a promise to modernise the US immigration system, offering a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented migrants and spending his early weeks in office reversing many of Trump’s restrictions on travel and visas.
But two months into his presidency, Biden is scrambling to contain an sudden surge in the number of children trying to cross the US-Mexico border, sparking a political crisis and drawing criticism of his administration’s immigration policy from both sides of the political aisle.
Republicans say the sharp increase in migrant crossings is a direct result of Biden’s efforts to liberalise immigration policy and his failure to secure the border. Democrats, conversely, are enraged by the detention of high numbers of unaccompanied children by US border agents.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said last week that nearly 9,500 unaccompanied children arrived last month at the south-western US border with Mexico, the highest since May 2019, representing a 62 per cent increase compared with January*.
Alejandro Mayorkas, US homeland security secretary, said on Tuesday that the US is “on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years”.
He defended the administration’s response, and blamed the Trump administration for leaving behind a “completely dismantled” asylum system.
Over the weekend the administration dispatched the US’s federal disaster management agency to help manage the thousands of children and teenagers being held in detention facilities and shelters.
“We recognise this is a big problem,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing on Monday.
On Monday Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, led a delegation to El Paso, Texas, where he criticised Biden for halting the construction of Trump’s border wall and urged the president to visit Texas.
“I came down here because I heard of the crisis, it’s more than a crisis,” said McCarthy. “This is a human heartbreak and the sad part about all this is that it didn’t have to happen. It is a crisis created by the presidential policies of this new administration.”
Last week, the top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, accused Biden of campaigning on “weakening border security,” while Liz Cheney was among 51 other Republicans who wrote to Biden last month demanding a briefing from the Department of Homeland Security.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, said immigration and the border was usually a “motivator” for the party faithful, and that the GOP had “done well” by focusing on immigration in the past.
“When people are seeing the images that we’re seeing right now coming from the border, it gives Republicans an opportunity to really move to talking about something that hits culturally,” Heye said.
Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, told the Financial Times that while the number of migrants entering the US was not currently hitting crisis levels, it was “going in that direction”. “What makes it more challenging is that we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Cuellar added.
Smugglers have spread the message among people in the so-called Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador that the Biden administration is allowing Central Americans in.
Many of those would-be migrants are fleeing poverty – exacerbated by two devastating hurricanes which struck the region within two weeks of each other in November – as well as violence in their corruption-plagued nations.
Biden has suspended the use of a public health rule activated by Trump that allowed the US to immediately expel children crossing the border illegally. The rule remains in force for adults.
CBP said that 100,441 people, including the 9.500 children, attempted entry along the southern border in February — a 28 per cent increase from January — although many adults were turned away. That compares with nearly 37,000 for the same month last year and 76,500 for the same month of 2019.
The higher numbers of children entering the US, combined with more complex procedures for vetting potential guardians for children, means authorities are struggling to cope with the increase and have re-established controversial temporary shelters to house children, including at Carrizo Springs and Donna in Texas.
“When it comes to unaccompanied children, you can’t release a child on their own,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council. “Realistically speaking, finding new physical locations and facilities to hold children with the staff to care for them is a process that takes weeks or months.”
But Reichlin-Melnick warned that the new facilities, which can each hold hundreds of children, “cannot become the new norm”.
He added: “Nobody likes that they’ve been reactivated and there are a lot of concerns about how they’re run and about oversight and accountability and ensuring that children are treated safely and humanely.”
The criticism has been amplified by progressive Democrats, including congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who last month hit out at the opening of the facility in Carizzo Springs. “This is not OK, never has been OK, never will be OK — no matter the administration or party,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a tweet.
Immigration experts say that in the short term, the Biden administration has little choice but to hold children who cross the border unaccompanied.
“That is still better than summarily returning them to Mexico without processing their claims or connecting them with sponsors who can care for them in the US while their claims are adjudicated,” said Jennifer Minear, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Additional reporting by Jude Webber in Mexico City
*This story has been amended since initial publication to note that the number of unaccompanied minors encountered at the US-Mexico border in February was the highest since May 2019.