The Biden administration is facing mounting pressure over a surge of unaccompanied migrant children crossing into the US, with the numbers seeking asylum at a 20-year high that is placing federal facilities and shelters under immense strain.
The homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, took to the political talk show circuit on Sunday to press the administration’s case that it is doing all it can. He continued to refer to the problem as a “challenge” not a “crisis”, attempting to put blame squarely on the previous incumbent of the White House, Donald Trump.
“It is taking time and it is difficult because the entire system was dismantled by the prior administration,” Mayorkas told CNN’s State of the Union. “There was a system in place that was torn down by the Trump administration.”
On ABC’s This Week, Mayorkas highlighted the tougher aspects of Joe Biden’s border policy, stressing that the administration was still expelling families and single adults under a regulation known as Title 42. He insisted largely Central American migrants arriving in increasing numbers were being given a clear message: “Do not come. The border is closed. The border is secure.”
But prominent Republicans have seized on the border difficulties as an opportunity to attack Biden for being soft on immigration.
Donald Trump said Mayorkas was “clueless” and called on him to complete the border wall.
first acts as president, Biden scrapped Trump’s hardline policy of sending unaccompanied children seeking asylum back to Mexico.
Under Biden’s guidelines, unaccompanied minors were exempted from the Title 42 rules and shielded from expulsion. That was deemed in line with the president’s pledge to achieve a “fair, safe and orderly” immigration system.
On Sunday, Mayorkas said the new approach addressed the humanitarian needs of migrant children “in a way that reflects our values and principles as a country”. But in the past few weeks, the numbers of minors seeking asylum has grown so rapidly that it has outpaced capacity to process the children in line with immigration laws.
72 hours allowed under immigration law.
There have been reports of overcrowding and harsh conditions in federal facilities in Texas. The Associated Press reported that some children were said by immigration lawyers to be sleeping on the floor after bedding ran out.
The government has tried to move as many children as possible into shelters run by the US Refugee Office, but they in turn have become stressed. There are now more than 9,500 children in shelters and short-term housing along the border. Non-governmental groups working with migrants and refugees have been forced to scramble to deal with the sudden demand for shelter.
As the administration struggles to keep a grip on events, it is also coming under criticism from Republicans and media outlets for refusing to allow reporters inside the beleaguered CBP facilities where children are being held. On Friday, Mayorkas visited El Paso in Texas with a bipartisan congressional delegation. Reporters were not allowed to follow them.
The Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz, called the move “outrageous and unacceptable”. In a tweet, he said: “No press. No cameras. What is Biden hiding?”
Quizzed by Fox News Sunday about the apparent lack of accountability, despite Biden’s promise to bring “trust and transparency” back to public affairs, Mayorkas said the administration was “working on providing access” to border patrol stations.
But he added: “First things first – we are focused on operations and executing our plans.”
While the political heat is rising at the border, moves are under way in Washington to try and find a longer-term fix to the age-old immigration conundrum. Last week the House of Representatives passed a bill that would give “Dreamers”, undocumented migrants brought to the US as children, a pathway to citizenship.
The legislation has an uncertain future in the Senate, given its 50-50 split and the need to reach 60 votes to pass most major legislation.
Dick Durbin, a Democratic senator from Illinois who has introduced a similar Dream Act to the Senate five times in the past 20 years, told CNN that he thought he was close to securing the necessary 60 votes. He also decried the current debate about whether there was a “crisis” or “challenge” at the border.
“We need to address our immigration laws in this country that are broken,” he said. “What you see at the border is one piece of evidence of that, but there’s much more.”