President Joe Biden is facing growing political tension, including from within his own party, over his administration’s strategy on the US-Mexico border as officials race to address the number of children crossing the border alone.
The politics of the border are front and center this week, with a visit from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, to the border Monday to be followed by House votes on two immigration bills that address immigrants who were brought to the US as children illegally and undocumented farmworkers. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will also testify on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
The border surge Biden faces comes as the politics of immigration have only grown more polarized and contentious. Republicans – many of whom followed in the footsteps of former President Donald Trump – are quick to hold up the crisis as a failure in leadership by Biden, an example of what unfolds when Democrats take control of the executive branch and abandon plans to expand Trump’s border wall.
More on immigration
Some Democrats have also been critical of Biden’s handling of the matter, suggesting the detention of families and children in temporary facilities is no better than how Trump handled migrant children during his time in office.
“We’re not going to cage children or divide families or rip children from mothers’ arms,” Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of Texas CNN’s Abby Phillip on Sunday, “but we need an orderly process for migrants who qualify for asylum to hopefully ask for asylum in their home country or a neighboring country or maybe build a center in southern Mexico where they can be processed there.”
More than 4,000 children have been stuck in Border Patrol-run facilities, which are akin to jail-like conditions, for extended periods in the absence of enough shelter space to properly care for them.
Over the weekend, Mayorkas tapped the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help move the process along. The administration also decided to terminate a Trump-era agreement that officials said discouraged sponsors, like parents or relatives, from coming forward to collect their children.
The sudden spike in children entering the US alone is being driven by the devastation left behind by two major hurricanes last year, the toll of the coronavirus pandemic and a perceived relaxation of enforcement.
Under the Trump administration, border officials had been turning away migrants, including children, after putting in place a public health order related to the pandemic. While the Biden administration is still largely leaning on that policy for adults and families, the administration has taken the position that it will allow children arriving on their own into the US, resulting in more kids in federal custody.
In El Paso, Texas, on Monday, McCarthy discussed the number of children who are victims of trafficking, saying many are harmed along the way: “Who knows what dangers, and who doesn’t make it? All because the policies of our President has changed and told them something different. Told them to risk their lives and broke families apart.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that the situation on the US-Mexico border is a “big problem” and outlined some of the steps the administration is taking.
“We recognize this is a big problem. The last administration left us a dismantled and unworkable system, and like any other problem, we’re going to do everything we can to solve it. So our focus here is on solutions,” she said during Monday’s press briefing.
Criticism from the left
But Biden’s ability to use tools that normally could be deployed to temper a crisis is at risk because of criticism from those to his left. Progressives on Capitol Hill who have long advocated to “abolish ICE” in the past have expressed frustration with suggestions that Biden’s administration would open overflow facilities for children, even though those facilities are unrelated to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In a new letter unveiled Monday and first reported by Politico, Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, asked the Biden administration to advance a new executive order to “phase out contracts between ICE” and local prisons.
In the wake of Trump’s presidency, the lines on immigration have become even more pronounced between Republicans and Democrats. Groups of bipartisan members who worked for years to come up with comprehensive solutions on immigration have largely dissolved, and it’s not just Republicans who have moved further from the middle.
Liberals have also grown frustrated with the slow pace of legislating on the Hill. Despite the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats have yet to find consensus in the House on a comprehensive immigration bill.
The House Judiciary Committee is expected to consider a broader immigration bill in April. The House is voting this week on two smaller packages, one that would give immigrants who came to the US illegally as children with their parents an opportunity at citizenship and another that would overhaul the country’s agricultural worker programs.
Behind the scenes, House members have been in regular touch with officials from the Biden administration.
Last week, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who’s a key chair of the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration Subcommittee, was briefed by Mayorkas, according to a Democratic aide familiar with the conversation. The aide told CNN that the Biden administration believes that Trump’s focus on the border wall made it harder for them to focus on other areas of the immigration crisis, and that they are looking at a series of ways to stem the influx of migrants at the border.
Worries from border area Democrats
Gonzalez and Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas expressed concern about the mounting crisis over the weekend.
“There is no doubt, Jake, that what we are seeing today is an enormous challenge, and it’s unacceptable,” Escobar told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union,” “but we also, I think, need to acknowledge that the flow of humanity arriving at our front door never stopped; the Donald Trump administration didn’t stop them, and what we are seeing today is the consequence of four years of dismantling every system in place to address this with humanity and compassion.”
Gonzalez said the US has a “broken immigration system” and called on the Biden administration to “move fast.”
“I think what we need is to have a plan in place that doesn’t incentivize people to make this very dangerous trek through Mexico, being held hostage by these cartels; they’re the ones that are enriching themselves with this very complicated situation that’s happening on our southern border, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” said Gonzalez, who represents McAllen, on the US-Mexico border.
Gonzalez sent a letter to the Biden administration this week requesting to meet with the President, Mayorkas and acting Health and Human Services Secretary Norris Cochran.
“I think the administration is on the right track,” Gonzalez said. “But we don’t have a lot of time. We have to move fast.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the party of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. He is a Republican.
CNN’s Daniella Diaz and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.