The Biden administration has dispatched a federal disaster agency to help deal with a surge in child migrants arriving at the US border with Mexico that has reignited a partisan row over immigration.
Rising numbers of people including nearly 9,500 unaccompanied children have arrived at the south-west border from Mexico and central American countries, surpassing an April 2019 peak under the Donald Trump administration.
Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of homeland security, over the weekend directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support a 90-day government-wide effort “to safely receive, shelter, and transfer unaccompanied children who make the dangerous journey”.
“As I have said many times, a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child,” Mayorkas said in a statement, adding that the border was closed. “It is never safe to come to the United States through irregular channels, and this is particularly true during a pandemic.”
The White House has urged migrants to stay away from the border even as the Biden administration seeks to undo Trump-era policies and open up immigration, a stance Republicans blame for kick-starting the latest seasonal surge, in which thousands of children are held in shelters.
US Customs and Border Protection on Wednesday announced that 100,441 people had attempted entry along the southern border in February — a 28 per cent increase from January. The agency reported that 9,457 of those individuals were unaccompanied minors — a 62 per cent increase from January.
Number of people attempting entry at the southern US border in February
The Biden administration said the same day it wanted to make migration processes “more humane and efficient”.
Measures include restarting a programme cancelled under the Trump administration to reunite children in Central America with their parents in the US, which stranded 3,000 children. It will also seek $4bn from Congress over the next four years to address the root causes of the migration crisis, which it said included corruption, violence and climate change.
Democratic congresswoman Veronica Escobar, who represents Texas, was among those who on Sunday blamed Trump for dismantling migrant infrastructure at the border, telling CNN that inhumane conditions at the border represented a humanitarian crisis that was “unacceptable”.
The Department of Homeland Security said the federal government was working to move unaccompanied children from the temporary oversight of US border patrol agents into the care of the US Department of Health and Human Services in order to place them with a family member or sponsor until their immigration case was adjudicated.
Bill Cassidy, a Republican senator, was among conservatives who blamed the shift in the Biden administration policies for encouraging migrants to rush to the border.
“Empirically, it is entirely [Biden’s responsibility],” he told Fox News Sunday. “You can’t help but notice that the administration changes and there’s a surge.”
He also pointed to a quickly corrected gaffe from Roberta Jacobson, the Biden team’s co-ordinator for the southern border, who last week said the border was “not closed” at one point during a White House briefing in a Spanish segment before quickly correcting herself in Spanish. She also said the border was closed in her English remarks.
“I can tell you, the Spanish version is being heard, not the English, and that’s being reported in national newspapers as well,” Cassidy said.