Biden Faces Growing Pressure to Stem Surge of Migrants at Border

President Joe Biden is coming under increasing pressure to respond to a growing crisis at the border, with a surge of migrants fleeing Central America showing no signs of abating.

In response, Biden on Monday sent two top White House officials to Mexico and Guatemala this week for talks in his latest attempt to stem the flow of illegal migration.

The trip comes as both Democrats and Republicans raise alarm. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, and Texas Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, wrote a letter Monday to Biden urging the president to use his “full authorities” to respond to the “crisis” at the border, saying “immediate action” is needed to ensure there’s enough space to house migrants and to improve the asylum process.

The surge has put Biden in a bind. During the 2020 campaign, he promised to satisfy liberal activists by establishing a more humane immigration system. But that pledge has come under fire from conservatives -- joined by some Democrats from border states -- who have demanded that the president send a firmer message to migrants seeking asylum that they are not welcome.

The influx of border crossings is especially pronounced among unaccompanied children and teenagers, creating a humanitarian predicament and political problems for the White House. Biden said Sunday that he plans to visit the U.S.-Mexico border “at some point” for a first-hand look at conditions.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday said the U.S. has amplified warnings to people in Central America not to come, citing more than 17,000 radio ads aired in the region by the State Department. At the same time, she denied the situation amounts to a crisis.

“Children presenting at our border who are fleeing violence, who are fleeing prosecution, who are fleeing terrible situations, is not a crisis,” she said. “We feel that it is our responsibility to humanely approach this circumstance and make sure they are treated and put into conditions that are safe.”

But unaccompanied minors are arriving in greater numbers and have overwhelmed some holding facilities at the southwest border. Photos released Monday by Texas Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar’s office showed migrants huddled together in crowded conditions inside an overflow center in Donna, Texas, as space runs short in shelters for children and families.

The envoys’ trip indicates growing concern in the administration. Roberta Jacobson, the coordinator for southwest border affairs, and the National Security Council’s Western Hemisphere Director Juan Gonzalez will meet with senior leaders to “develop an effective and humane plan of action to manage migration,” NSC spokeswoman Emily Horne said in a statement.

The U.S. delegation will meet with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, deputy secretary for North America Roberto Velasco and other foreign ministry officials, a senior administration official said in a briefing for reporters. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

In Guatemala, President Alejandro Giammattei and Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo will host Gonzalez and Ricardo Zúñiga, a State Department official who is being named special envoy to the Northern Triangle region of Central America, from where most of the migrants leave.

Jacobson and Gonzalez plan to discuss ways to stop the migrants from traveling north to the U.S. border as well as strategies to address the root causes of the migration, such as corruption, violence and poor economic conditions in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The U.S. officials in Mexico will pitch a joint development strategy for southern Mexico and the Northern Triangle to boost job creation and give potential migrants better reasons to remain in their home countries, the official said. Guatemalan civil society leaders and representatives of non-governmental organization are also scheduled to meet with the U.S. delegation.

The Biden administration included $4 billion in aid for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in its proposal for an immigration overhaul, but Jacobson has said the money will be contingent on those governments rooting out corruption.

The U.S. has seen a dramatic spike in the number of people encountered by border officials in recent weeks. That includes 18,945 family members encountered in February alone, an increase of 168% from January, according to the Pew Research Center.

Republicans have accused Biden of creating a crisis by rolling back some of former President Donald Trump’s hard-line policies while using more welcoming rhetoric on immigration. They have singled out the new administration’s move to end Trump policies that sent migrant asylum-seekers back to Mexico to await their cases and repealing a Trump era-rule that made it more difficult to obtain visas.

“The border right now is wide open because the Biden administration dismantled the very effective policies of the Trump administration and the agreements we had with Mexico and other Latin American countries,” Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Biden and his top aides have argued they are still turning back the vast majority of those who show up at the southern border using an authority known as Title 42 -- a provision enacted during the pandemic to stem the spread of coronavirus.

But Biden’s decision to accept unaccompanied minors has strained shelter space, which was already in shorter supply due to coronavirus restrictions.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the shelters, had more than 9,500 children and teens in custody as of last week. An additional 4,500 minors were in facilities run by Customs and Border Protection. Minors are only supposed to remain at CBP sites for 72 hours but many have stayed longer due to lack of space at HHS shelters.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced over the weekend it will add a temporary shelter with 1,239 beds for families who arrive at the border. A small number of families with small children are not expelled immediately under the pandemic rule and are placed into immigration proceedings in the U.S., putting further strain on space in facilities.

“Let’s get these kids out of CBP custody, get them into HHS custody,” Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters in Jacksonville, Florida, on Monday. “We’ve got to treat this issue in a way that is reflective of our values as Americans and do it in a way that is fair and that is humane, but we have to meet the moment, and there’s a lot of work going into that.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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