The White House on Monday backtracked after President Joe Biden over the weekend described the influx of migrant children on the country’s southern border as a “crisis,” in what appeared to be a notable shift in language.
The President’s use of the “crisis” label doesn’t represent the administration’s official position, the White House said Monday in regard to a term that top administration officials have refused to say as the numbers of migrants surged.
Biden spoke to reporters after a round of golf at the Wilmington Country Club on Saturday and was asked about the cap on refugees admitted to the US in the current fiscal year.
“We’re gonna increase the numbers. The problem was that the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up on the border with young people and we couldn’t do two things at once. And now we’re going to increase the numbers,” Biden said.
On Monday, the White House sought to downplay those words, claiming Biden was referring to the conditions in Northern Triangle countries that migrants are coming from and not the surge of migrant children in US custody.
“No, there is no change in position. Children coming to our border seeking refuge from violence, economic hardships and other dire circumstances is not a crisis,” a White House official told CNN.
The official said that Biden “was referring to the crisis in Central America – the dire circumstances so many are fleeing from. He was not referring to the Federal Government’s response.”
That official added, “The Federal Government’s response and process has been laser focused on finding solutions that allow us to address these root causes, expand capacity space and quickly transfer children to relatives. We remain focused on getting children out of CBP facilities, into proper facilities, and ultimately united with relatives or sponsors who are safe and have been vetted.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki made the same distinction later on Monday afternoon.
“The President does not feel that children coming to our border seeking refuge from violence, economic hardships, and other dire circumstances is a crisis. He does feel that the crisis in Central America – the dire circumstances that many are fleeing from – that that is a situation we need to spend our time or effort on and we need to address it if we’re going to prevent more of an influx of migrants from coming in years to come,” Psaki said at the press briefing Monday.
Biden’s use of the word crisis to describe the situation at the border came after Psaki, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and Roberta Jacobson, the senior administration overseeing the border, all declined to label it as such throughout the month of March. It was something Psaki and others were pressed on by reporters on at least nine occasions.
The number of migrants on the southern border was steadily increasing in the first weeks of the Biden administration, with more than 100,000 migrants encountered on the US-Mexico border in February, which jumped to more than 172,000 in March.
That surge included a surging number of families and children. The number of unaccompanied minor children in US Customs and Border Protection custody, an agency not intended to care for children for prolonged periods of time, reached dramatic highs throughout the month of March.
Psaki declined to “put new labels on it” when asked if the government had a crisis on the border on February 25.
On March 1, Mayorkas emphatically said “the answer is no” when asked if there was a crisis, saying instead that there is a “challenge at the border that we are managing.”
On March 2, Psaki reiterated the administration would “approach this without labeling.” She again declined to describe it as a crisis on March 5, March 9 and March 10 when asked directly whether she would attribute the word “crisis” to the situation.
There were more than 3,200 unaccompanied minor children in custody on March 9, per internal agency documents reviewed by CNN.
Jacobson reiterated that posture March 10, saying, “I’m not trying to be cute here, but I think the fact of the matter is: We have to do what we do regardless of what anybody calls the situation.”
By March 11, when there were roughly 4,500 children in CBP custody, Psaki told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, “It doesn’t matter what you call it. It is an enormous challenge.”
On March 18, Psaki actually briefly described the situation as a “crisis on the border,” but asked later in the briefing if there was a change in the administration’s view, she clarified that there were “challenges on the border.”
Pressed once more on March 22, Psaki said, “Children presenting at our border who are fleeing violence, who are fleeing prosecution, who are fleeing terrible situations, is not a crisis. 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,” going on to say the administration’s focus was on “solutions.”
The number of children in CPB custody hit a peak of nearly 5,800 on March 28. That number has dropped significantly since then as the administration enhanced efforts to transfer the children from CBP’s jail-like facilities into the hands of the Department of Health and Human Services, a department better equipped to care for them. As of last week, there were 2,515 children in CBP custody, indicating progress in alleviating Border Patrol stations.
But the average time in CBP custody for unaccompanied migrant children is still far above the 72-hour legal limit, though, hovering around 122 hours, according to data obtained by CNN.
HHS oversees a shelter network for migrant children and has been opening a series of pop-up sites to house children until they can be released to a sponsor, like a parent or relative, in the United States. As a result, the number of children in HHS custody has grown: As of last week, there were 19,798 children in HHS custody.
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.