Biden’s plan to remake immigration system faces bipartisan pressure6 min read . Updated: 06 Mar 2021, 01:07 PM IST
- Rising numbers of migrant children and families at southern border prompts criticism less than two months into new administration
President Biden aims to chart a different course than his Democratic and Republican predecessors on immigration, but the recent rise in migrant children and families crossing the border illegally is sparking a political backlash that could complicate his efforts.
Mr. Biden’s team has said it is trying to reduce the immigration system’s reliance on long-term detention of asylum seekers and more quickly process unaccompanied children and families out of custody. That is a departure from both the Trump and Obama administrations, which relied on detention and deterrence as key tools to ensure the border wasn’t overrun.
Mr. Biden, who was briefed on Tuesday by administration officials on the rising number of unaccompanied children, recently opened an unlicensed emergency shelter to accommodate more children in Carrizo Springs, Texas. He has put off plans to formally begin reopening the Homestead facility in Florida, now called Biscayne, which they had intended to do last Friday, according to people familiar with the conversations.
So far, the administration has tried to strike a balance. It has ended most Trump-era policies such as the Migrant Protection Protocols, which returned asylum seekers at the southern border to wait in Mexico while their cases were being considered. But it has kept one tool: a pandemic-era public-health emergency that allows border-patrol agents to immediately return most migrants who enter the U.S. illegally, without detaining them or allowing them to ask for asylum.
The administration, however, has elected not to continue expelling unaccompanied children, a decision it framed as the most humane way to treat children but that critics have said is attracting more children to come.
With border crossings on the rise, the administration’s approach is already being put to the test less than two months in and drawing bipartisan criticism.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sent a letter to Mr. Biden on Friday, requesting a meeting with him to discuss the rise in unaccompanied minors.
“We must acknowledge the border crisis, develop a plan, and, in no uncertain terms, strongly discourage individuals from Mexico and Central America from ever making the dangerous journey to our southern border," Mr. McCarthy wrote.
Asked about Mr. McCarthy’s letter, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the president is open to discussing the matter with Democrats or Republicans.
“The president and this administration’s focus is on digging out of the dismantled and inhumane immigration approach of the last administration, and that’s why the president has proposed an immigration bill that would not only address the root causes that Leader McCarthy referenced in his letter, but would move beyond the policy of funding ineffective border walls and by investing in smart security at ports of entry and would also create a pathway to citizenship," she said.
House Republicans have also called for hearings on the issue. One of them, Rep. James Comer (R., Ky.), ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform committee, criticized the administration’s effort to accelerate migrant processing.
“President Biden’s actions are encouraging more illegal immigration and enticing more parents to bring their children to the United States since they know they’ll be quickly released into the interior of our country," Mr. Comer said. “President Biden should follow President Trump’s lead in order to stem the crisis at the border rather than resorting to catch and release."
Democrats from both the centrist and progressive wings of the party have also been putting pressure on Mr. Biden, with opposing views on how to tackle the influx of unaccompanied minors.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate Texas Democrat, said this week on Fox News that the administration needed to look beyond immigration activists’ advice. “They also need to listen to the communities on the border that I represent—the mayors, the judges, the NGOs down there, and with that, he can come up with a balanced approach," he said.
The unaccompanied children are posing the most urgent challenge because, unlike families and adults, the government is responsible for their care until they are taken on by vetted adult sponsors. The increasing number of children, which was projected to reach 9,000 in February, has caused the government’s child shelters to fill as pandemic-linked social-distancing measures have reduced capacity by 40%.
The Florida shelter, the only one run by a for-profit company, was criticized in 2019 for housing children in overcrowded tents, making its potential reopening even more politically fraught. Several Democratic presidential candidates, including now Vice President Kamala Harris, visited the shelter during the presidential primary and called for its closure.
Mr. Biden has requested that his administration come up with other options for handling the children, the people familiar with the conversations said.
Senior members of his team are expected to travel to the border before briefing the president again on further steps to deal with the influx of unaccompanied minors, according to Vedant Patel, a White House spokesman.
“If he can’t manage the border and things start collapsing, the underpinnings of that whole vision start becoming a lot more tenuous," said Cris Ramon, an independent immigration analyst who previously worked at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank.
With space running out at facilities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has approved a plan to reduce social-distancing inside shelters, as children are quarantined for 10 days at the border before being transferred to shelters across the country, one of the people said.
The administration is also looking to place shelter staff inside border-patrol stations so that they can begin the process of finding a sponsor, typically a family member or family friend in the U.S., who can take the child sooner, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said at a news briefing this week.
Officials are taking steps to accelerate detention facilities’ processing of migrants. In late February, officials briefed nonprofits in Texas on a plan to convert two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement family detention centers, according to people on the call.
The centers would become Covid-testing facilities where migrants would be tested twice and released after a few days if they test negative. Aid organizations would also be able to help them arrange travel.
Previously, migrants could be held in the centers for much longer. Under the plan, many of the migrants would be monitored using ankle bracelets, regular check-ins and other tools to ensure they appear at court appointments.
News of the change was earlier reported by the San Antonio Express-News.
Edna Yang, co-executive director of American Gateways, a nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants based in Austin, Texas, who joined the call, said she is always pleased when ICE decides not to detain people.
“That being said, we hope this change is a long-term one," she said. “As of now, it doesn’t seem to be."
Greyhound Lines Inc. this week asked the Biden administration to ensure that migrants released by border authorities have tested negative for Covid-19 before they are dropped off at bus stations or released to nonprofit aid groups. The company also requested government funding to help manage expected greater demand that could be caused by a potential increase of migrants using its buses.
The new use for the detention centers marks as much a change in rhetoric as in reality: Under former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, a court settlement prevented the government from using the detention centers to jail families long-term, requiring that families be released after about 20 days. The Trump administration was able to jail families longer-term only in limited circumstances toward the end of his time in office.
The changes come as Biden administration officials have repeatedly said they want migrants to wait to cross the border until they have had time to implement their vision of a new immigration system, which would provide faster asylum decisions at the border, soon after a migrant crosses, and offer aid to Central American countries to help create jobs and curtail violence so fewer citizens of those countries are driven to leave.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.
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