(CNN) — Joe Biden has vowed to take further steps to ease the surge in migrant children on the southern border as his White House avoids Republican attacks over a heartbreaking humanitarian challenge that threatens to tarnish his swift start as president.
After weeks of refusing to call the crossings that have overwhelmed border crossings a “crisis,” the administration is making an aggressive attempt to defuse the situation and the toxic politics it has sparked in Washington.
The president said Sunday that the administration planned to rebuild a system that allows potential migrant children to seek asylum in their home countries to prevent them from making the dangerous journey through human smuggling networks to the United States border with Mexico. .
“I know what’s going on in those facilities,” Biden said after returning to the White House from Camp David, vowing to travel to the border himself “at some point.”
In a new signal of political urgency from the administration, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas participated in four Sunday political television shows, rejecting criticism that the administration was caught off guard by the surge in migrants and actively contributed to it. swiftly rewriting immigration rules when he took office.
“We work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Mayorkas told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.” “We have dealt with surges in the past and the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security will succeed.”
Mayorkas has dismissed allegations that the Biden administration reversed some of former President Donald Trump’s policies that it deemed inhumane before he was ready to handle an influx.
He was unable to give a precise timeline of when thousands of children could be transferred from crowded border patrol stations to more suitable accommodation that is especially crucial amid the pandemic. Mayorkas also would not guarantee immediate access for the press inside the migrant border posts, citing restrictions due to covid-19. Failure to do so has cast doubt on the new White House’s promises of more transparency and Biden’s commitment to always be on the same level as Americans and to tell them the truth about the extent of national crises.
The Secretary of Homeland Security also sought to counter false claims by Republican critics that the new White House has simply opened the border to everyone.
“We are raising our messages, so that people know that they cannot reach the border. The border is closed, ”Mayorkas told Bash.
LEE: Secretary of Homeland Security says border is closed and did not give a date on when there will be new facilities for unaccompanied minors
A humanitarian and political problem
At the heart of the current border crisis is a humanitarian dilemma about what to do with children and adolescents alone seeking to enter the country. As part of a series of immigration policy changes, the Biden administration reversed a Trump-era strategy of returning all migrant children alone at the border, a practice that left them vulnerable to desperate conditions in shady camps or smugglers. in Mexico.
The children, many of whom already have relatives in the United States, can now enter the United States pending asylum applications. Contrary to what Republicans claim, the border is not open to everyone. Most undocumented families and individuals who try to cross are turned away.
Apart from the human context of the crisis, with thousands of desperate people fleeing violence, repression and the impact of natural disasters in Central America, the situation is becoming a thorny political problem. It’s distracting Biden’s hopes of selling people his $ 1.9 trillion covid-19 bailout plan and vying for attention as officials plead with Americans to maintain social distancing to prevent a further surge in social distancing. pandemic before the vaccine campaign can completely suppress infections.
The problem is sure to occupy a large chunk of Biden’s long-awaited first formal press conference on Thursday, which he hoped to use to highlight his response to the pandemic, including that he delivered on his promise to deliver 100 million doses of vaccines in his first 100 days. with more than a month in advance.
The controversy over the border is growing on its own momentum and threatens to erode the already narrow political space in which bipartisan immigration reform could take place in the Senate. Any crisis in which an administration appears to be overtaken by events is dangerous for a new White House. And the fate of children is offering an immediate reminder that even in the midst of a single pandemic in a century and the ensuing economic downturn, a president can face multiple crises simultaneously. In just the past few days, Biden has juggled fears of a new wave of covid-19, the immigration situation, and waged a two-front diplomatic showdown with Russia and China.
Republicans feel the migrant child crisis is an opportunity to affect Biden, and Trump seized that Sunday by issuing a statement that included several misleading statements and accused the president of turning a “national triumph into a national disaster” at the border. .
Trump, whose White House pursued immigration policies that included the cruel separation of migrant families and children, many of whom they have yet to trace, built his run for the White House in 2016 on a scorched earth immigration strategy. The issue remains powerful among voters on the Republican base and offers the former president an opportunity to reintegrate himself into the political debate on an issue where Biden is vulnerable.
Controversy grows in Washington
The White House knew that the number of migrants arriving at the border would increase once Biden took office. But they did not expect an increase of this size, according to a CNN report released Saturday night based on conversations with more than a dozen administration officials.
The increasing number has surpassed processing points and has forced the administration to call the Federal Emergency Management Agency to establish childcare facilities. More than 15,000 unaccompanied migrant minors are now in U.S. custody, according to officials.
Republicans have gripped the border crisis by traveling to border states and claiming that Biden’s policies have sparked an open season for undocumented immigrants. This is a perfect theme for the Republican Party, as it allows the party to try to undermine the new Democratic president and divert attention from his popular management of the pandemic.
Immigration is a glue that mends the divisions of the Republican Party and allows the pro and anti-Trump factions to unite behind a single message. And with next year’s midterm elections, illegal immigration is the best possible call for the Republican base.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, recently returned from demagoguery on the issue at the border, playing on racial prejudice by suggesting that Yemenis, Sri Lankans and Chinese were entering To united states.
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024, lashed out at what his party members uniformly call a “Biden border crisis.”
“The border right now is wide open because the Biden administration dismantled the very effective policies of the Trump administration and the agreements we had with Mexico and other Latin American countries,” Cotton said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Cotton misrepresented the true situation at the border. But the power of the immigration debate lies in the suggestion of untamed immigration, and critics point to “outsiders” who, according to them, have no right to be in the United States, even though the law stipulates that people who flee violence or other danger have the right to seek asylum.
Republican Senator Rob Portman, who need not fear a primary challenge from pro-Trump anti-immigrant forces as he retires, is among a group of senators the White House could look to for bipartisan cooperation.
But the Ohio senator said people are not heeding Biden’s warnings against people arriving at the border.
“I spoke to single people who come at night, men who told me they heard what President Biden said and were coming anyway,” Portman said on CBS “Face the Nation” after touring the facility last week. passed in Texas.
“I spoke with the children and I told them about the messages. And what they are hearing is that now you can come to the United States, that you can, if you are a child. And so they will continue to come.
LEE: Biden is caught up in immigration woes as unaccompanied migrant child crisis continues
Vulnerability for the president
The White House responds to such criticism by accusing the Trump administration, which made harsh anti-immigration laws an article of faith, of leaving the system in disrepair. While the argument may be partially justified, no new administration can continually blame its predecessor once in power and hope to avoid collateral political damage.
A poll A recent CNN / SSRS story highlighted how immigration is an issue where Biden is most vulnerable.
While Biden’s approval rating stood at 51% amid satisfaction with his handling of the pandemic since he took office, only 43% of Americans approved of his performance on issued immigration and 49% disapproved. . The survey was conducted more than two weeks ago, before the full scope of the events at the border became clear.
Biden’s hopes of solving this initial challenge will now hinge on the ability of officials like Mayorkas to open enough facilities to move unaccompanied children from congested border posts to Department of Health and Human Services facilities and stop the flows of immigrants. even though smugglers and children know they can establish a foothold in America.
Aid to Central American states could make a difference in alleviating the conditions that cause migrants to flee. But such long-term solutions are unlikely to change the short-term dynamics, or turn off what officials say is pent-up demand among immigrants who built during the Trump years.
The situation will also force the White House to balance its own desire to end the Trump administration’s often cruel policies while shielding the president from political vulnerability on the issue.
“We will not abandon our values and our principles. We will not abandon the needs of vulnerable children. That’s what it’s all about, “Mayorkas said on” State of the Union. “
“We are executing our plan. It takes time. It’s hard”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism