WASHINGTON – Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate Texas Democrat whose district hugs the border with Mexico, is not happy with how President Joe Biden’s team has responded to the surge of migrants trying to enter the United States. “His people need to do a better job of listening to those of us who have done this before,” he said Monday.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who took a trip to the border Monday to slam Biden’s approach, was even more critical.
“There’s no other way to claim it than a Biden border crisis,” McCarthy, R-Calif., said during a visit to a migrant processing center in El Paso, Texas.
And Neha Desai, an immigration attorney who recently visited a detention site, said that while the conditions there have greatly improved from the Trump era, “it is unacceptable for children to be spending days on end in dramatically overcrowded facilities.”
Nearly two months into his first term, Biden faces a growing political threat from the upheaval at the border and is drawing criticism from across the spectrum. Centrist Democrats are nervous about attacks casting them as soft on border security. Liberals and immigration activists are sounding alarms about how migrants are treated. And Republicans are increasingly laying the groundwork for immigration-centric attacks in the midterm elections.
“The Republicans will turn around and use this for a political weapon against Democrats – that we’re weak on the border, we’re not doing enough, we’re letting everybody in,” Cuellar said in an interview. “I’ve been warning the party and the administration: Don’t let this get out of hand, because all you’re going to do is you’re going to give Republicans an issue.”
Border arrests and detentions during the final months of the Trump presidency rose to some of the highest levels in a decade, and illegal crossings have skyrocketed since Biden took office. In February, detentions topped 100,000, a 28% increase from the previous month, and March is on pace for an even larger surge, with more than 4,000 border apprehensions each day, according to the latest U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) figures.
“We recognize this as a problem. We’re focused on addressing it,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday. The Trump administration, she said, “left us a dismantled and unworkable system.”
It’s not clear whether voters will see it that way. Trump demonstrated that immigration can be an explosive issue that upends the political landscape, suggesting it could be a real threat to a president who is otherwise coasting on high approval ratings.
And the dilemma is greater because so many people crossing the border are minors.
Biden pledged to reverse Trump’s lower-immigrant policies, and smuggling organizations have capitalized on that in their marketing efforts. Biden officials have attempted to counter smugglers’ claims with statements from the White House insisting the border is closed and that anyone crossing it will not be allowed in – but those statements don’t entirely reflect the reality.
The president is receiving high marks from most Americans for his efforts to curtail the coronavirus pandemic, including a $1.9 trillion relief measure. That has left Republicans scrambling to find a potent issue as they seek to retake the House and the Senate in 2022.
Many Republicans believe immigration may be that topic. In recent days, party leaders have shifted their focus to the border, culminating in McCarthy traveling there with a delegation of House Republicans. In a news conference, they said the huge flow of migrants presents safety risks and could worsen the pandemic, echoing Trump’s message.
“The security of our nation and our border is first and foremost the responsibility of our president,” McCarthy said. “I came down here because I heard of the crisis. It’s more than a crisis – this is human heartbreak.”
Republican leaders say border security is one of the most powerful motivators for their party base, and a topic that, if presented in the right tone, can appeal to suburban swing voters as well.
Many GOP strategists believe the path back to congressional majorities runs through moderate suburban districts where Democrats have made huge gains, driven by a backlash against Trump’s style and rhetoric. With Biden in office, they hope they can target Democratic policies without the distraction of Trump’s unorthodox tactics.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee recently commissioned polling that officials said showed that they would be running on favorable terrain when it comes to immigration.
“They’ve been negligent,” Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., NRSC chairman, said of the Biden administration. “It’s bad for the country to not have a secure border.”
Biden has rolled back some of Trump’s deterrent policies using executive authority while halting construction of the border wall, curbing deportations and allowing the entry of more asylum seekers.
Administration officials on Monday urged patience and emphasized how much the Trump policies, including off legal immigration channels and regional funding, have affected what they have been able to do out of the gate. To rebut political attacks, they plan to underscore the comprehensive nature of their border approach and are highlighting their commitment to the safety of migrant children. But they say it will take time.
“You can’t sort of like flip the switch on a dime overnight,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak on the record. Incoming Biden administration officials were warned for months that sudden moves along the border would be risky, given that Central American economic misery has deepened with the pandemic.
While the CBP continues to use a Trump-era public health order known as Title 42 to rapidly return most single adult migrants back to Mexico, the Biden administration halted the practice for teens and children. Their numbers have more than tripled to roughly 500 per day.
The Biden administration continues to treat the crisis as a capacity shortage that can be managed by opening additional shelters, rather than one that requires a major policy shift. The CBP is looking at adding tent sites in Yuma and Tucson, for example, to ease overcrowding in border stations in Arizona, according to one official with knowledge of the plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss the matter.
That comes with its own political challenges, including potential pushback from communities that do not want undocumented immigrants in their area.
Cuellar, like many others, said Biden’s rhetoric was heavily responsible for the influx of migrants. Last week, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the new U.S. president had stirred hopes for many Central Americans seeking to emigrate or reunite with loved ones already in the United States.
“They see him as the migrant president,” López Obrador told reporters.
That illustrates the crux of Biden’s dilemma: The promise of a gentler, more humane immigration policy was central to his campaign – but that message has prompted an influx that the administration is finding hard to control.
“When you deliver mixed messages, the migrants and smugglers hear what they want to hear,” said Alan Bersin, who served as CBP commissioner during President Barack Obama’s first term. “They’re saying the border isn’t open – but in fact, for unaccompanied children and families with children under 6, the border is open. You simply can’t thread the needle in messaging.”
Some activists say the Biden administration was dealt a difficult hand and should be allowed time to create a more effective system.
“I think the Biden administration is doing emergency response,” said Arturo Vargas, chief executive of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “They’re dealing with what was left by the prior administration, which was a situation in crisis.”
Desai, an attorney with the National Youth Law Center who represents migrant children, was able to visit a tent site last week in Donna, Texas, that has filled far beyond capacity. The facility is not comparable to the Border Patrol warehouse whose chain-link holding pens were denounced as cages in 2018, Desai said. But she still has concerns.
“What we saw concerned us profoundly, but I think we share the same goals as the Biden administration,” he added. “No one wants to see these children hungry, terrified and apart from their family.”
Ken Wolfe, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services, confirmed Monday that the agency had opened an “emergency intake” site in Midland, Texas, with FEMA assistance. It will be staffed by the American Red Cross, private contractors and federal workers, Wolfe said in a statement.
Many liberal Democrats have voiced concerns about how children are being treated, even as they acknowledge a difference from the Trump years. “The administration and Congress must prioritize better housing for these children while their asylum cases are being adjudicated,” said Ro Khanna, D-Calif.
Khanna, whose district is home to a proposed site, said that if it is used, “there would need to be a lot of work to make sure that it’s a safe and appropriate place for housing large numbers of children.”
Some Democrats are looking ahead to the midterm elections, where the immigration debate probably will play a role, and where candidates will face an inordinately complex set of political crosswinds when it comes to the border.
Democrats acknowledged that they will need to navigate sensitivities in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, which are home to many White working-class voters who responded warmly to Trump’s protectionist economic platform and hard-line immigration rhetoric in 2016.
“You have to make sure that you don’t skip over border security, because it’s an issue that people have a concern about,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a close Biden ally. “Sometimes Democrats get to part of the reform and part of the legislation, and they kind of skip over the concerns that people have about border security.”
Biden won back several of the Rust Belt states Trump carried in 2016, including Pennsylvania. But his national victory came with troubling signs for his party, as Trump outperformed expectations in South Florida and Texas’s Rio Grande Valley.
That stoked concerns among Democrats about their ability to bring in Latino voters. Biden faced criticism during his campaign for not doing more outreach in Latino communities.
Those political complications loom over the party’s efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration bill in Congress with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The House plans to advance additional legislation this week that would provide protections to undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children and would open avenues for undocumented farmworkers to obtain green cards. But an evenly split Senate has raised doubts about whether such bill will become law.
If it does not, activists, warn, there could be backlash in 2022 – just as Republicans warn of a backlash from the other direction.
“There is an opportunity for something to happen,” said Vargas, who recalled Obama’s unfulfilled goals on immigration. “This is a test of American character.”