Joe Biden vows action on migrants as he defends border policy
The US will take steps to more quickly move hundreds of migrant children and teens out of cramped detention facilities along the south-west border, Joe Biden said yesterday.
The president was pushing back against suggestions his administration’s policies are responsible for the rising number of people seeking to enter the country.
Pressed repeatedly on the border issue at his first news conference since taking office, Mr Biden said his administration was taking steps to address the situation with measures such as setting aside space at a Texas Army base for about 5,000 unaccompanied minors. But mostly he fired back at criticism.
He noted that his administration, as was done under President Donald Trump, is continuing to quickly expel most adults and families under a public health order imposed at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak. The crucial difference is that the government is allowing teens and children, at least temporarily, to stay in the country, straining government resources during the pandemic.
“The only people we’re not going to let be left sitting there on the other side of the Rio Grande by themselves with no help are children,” he said.
The situation along the US-Mexico border has become an early challenge for the administration, drawing more questions than any other subject at the maiden news conference, and diverting attention as the administration addresses the pandemic and the economy.
The number of migrants attempting to cross the border is at the highest level since a spring 2019 surge under Mr Trump, according to the most recently released statistics. The numbers appear to be rising and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently warned they are on pace to hit a 20-year peak.
Mr Biden sought to portray it as a seasonal spike and not, as critics have said, a result of moves such as his decisions to halt construction of border wall projects started under Trump or support for broad immigration legislation.
“It happens every year,” he said. “Does anybody suggest that there was a 31% increase under Trump because he was a nice guy and he was doing good things at the border? That’s not the reason they’re coming.”
Mr Trump responded to a sharp increase in border crossings in 2019 by requiring migrants to wait in Mexico while the US evaluated their asylum petitions or to make claims instead in Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras. Those Trump-era programmes were criticised for sending people fleeing violence back into dangerous situations.
Former acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf, now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said on Thursday that Mr Biden invited the current crisis by ending those programs and other measures.
“He took away all of the consequences, at the same time he began to message that it was perfectly acceptable to come,” he said.
Mr Biden, for his part, condemned the Trump-era requirement that migrants await their asylum claims in Mexico as “sitting on the edge of the Rio Grande in a muddy circumstance with not enough to eat.”
He also criticised an earlier policy of separating children from their families at the border and argued that it was conditions in people’s home countries that push them to the US border.
“It’s because of earthquakes, floods. It’s because of lack of food. It’s because of gang violence,” he said. “It’s because of a whole range of things that when I was vice president had the same obligation to deal with unaccompanied children.”