Praised for his human touch, Joe Biden faces an early political and moral test of how his government treats thousands of migrant children who make the dangerous journey to the United States alone.
Authorities say the number of people caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border is on track to reach its limit. highest number in 20 years. Single adults and families are being kicked out under the coronavirus safety rules inherited from Donald Trump.
But a growing number of children, some as young as six, from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are arriving at the southern border without parents or guardians. These minors are taken to border patrol facilities, where many languish in overcrowded, prison-like conditions for days on end.
The rapidly developing humanitarian emergency shows how Biden’s determination to break away from Trump’s harsh nativist repression in favor of a more compassionate approach has collided with the reality of finite resources and a broken system.
“I think this increase surprised them,” he said. Maria Teresa Kumar, founding president of the grassroots political organization Voto Latino. “As someone who monitored this a lot, I didn’t see it coming and I don’t think the community saw it coming. It took everyone by surprise.
“It is heartbreaking to know that there are children who are cold and have no family. It is one of these cases where it seems that there are no correct answers. Knowing that people within the administration are very on the side of immigrants tells me that real moral dilemmas are occurring right now and I would not want to be in that position. “
Democrats have called the situation a “challenge” and a “problem” and have blamed Trump’s legacy. Republicans were quick to label it the first “crisis” and “disaster” of the Biden presidency. The battle is proof that border access remains one of the most complex, emotional, and radioactive issues in American politics.
Trump launched his campaign for the presidency promising to build a wall, he routinely vilified migrants and, before the 2018 midterm elections, he often spoke of an “invasion.” Biden stopped construction on the wall and vowed to undo Trump’s zero-tolerance policies.
The number of “encounters” between migrants and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has increased every month since April 2020. But when 100,441 migrants were reported attempting to cross the border last month was the highest level since March 2019 and included a particular increase in unaccompanied children.
Many of these children head to the United States to reunite with family members or escape poverty, crime, and violence. Central America has been hit by hurricanes and the economic consequences of Covid-19. In an ABC interview This week, Biden denied that more migrants were coming because he is “a good guy,” insisting: “They come because their situation is so bad.”
Under Trump, unaccompanied children were sent directly back to Mexico. Biden decided that they should go to a border patrol facility and, within 72 hours, be transferred to the health department with a view to being placed with a family member or sponsor.
However, it has quickly become apparent that the system is not fit for purpose, leaving some 4,500 children trapped in facilities designed for adult males. Attorneys who visited a facility in Texas described seeing children sleeping on the floor or on metal benches and being allowed outside for a few minutes every few days.
The administration is scrambling to find more capacity, opening emergency shelters and using a convention center in Dallas to house up to 3,000 teens. He also deployed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), which typically responds to floods, storms and other disasters, to help house and transport children at least until early June.
Republicans seized on that move as evidence that a disaster is unfolding. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy led a delegation of a dozen Republicans to El Paso, Texas, and spoke of “The Biden Border Crisis”, adding: “It is more than a crisis. This is human anguish. “
The message has resonated through conservative media that find Biden an elusive target. Trump made wildly exaggerated claims in a Fox News interview: “They are destroying our country. People are arriving by the hundreds of thousands and frankly our country cannot handle it. It is a crisis like we have rarely had it and, certainly, we have never had it at the border ”.
For Republicans, reeling from electoral defeat, internal divisions and the failure to block Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, the border offers a political lifeline.
Henry Olsen, A senior member of the thinktank from the Center for Public Policy and Ethics in Washington, said: “If the numbers go down next month, this is not a crisis, but I think what they hope is that they will not go down and that this will be something that it will be an endemic and long-lasting problem.
“It is something that energizes and unites the Trump coalition of voters and could easily be seen as a failure on behalf of the administration by a sufficient number of people who voted for him but are not staunch Democrats. So I think it’s a very smart move for Republicans to play this and Biden needs to figure out how you can be compassionate without being naively welcoming. He hasn’t figured out how to do that yet. “
Others, however, see the Republican response as a predictable tactic by a party obsessed with demonizing immigrants. Kumar said: “They are phonies and it is calculated coldly because they know they have problems with white suburban voters and they are trying to defend it in the midterm elections.
“It’s cynical and disgusting because when children were literally dying at the border, when they had a president who was flushing tear gas at the refugees, none of them stood up. It’s cold and callous political expediency and it’s shameful. “
The White House has noted that the Trump administration forcibly separated nearly 3,000 children from their parents, with no system in place to reunite them. Alejandro Mayorkas, the first migrant and first Latino in charge of the Department of Homeland Security, told Congress: “A crisis is when a nation is willing to tear a nine-year-old child out of the hands of its parents and separate that family to deter future migration. That, for me, is a humanitarian crisis. “
Mayorkas argues that Trump’s decision to reduce staffing, bed capacity and other resources was reckless given the likelihood that the number of migrants will rise again as the pandemic subsides.
“The system was destroyed,” he said, “the facilities were shut down and young children were cruelly expelled at the hands of traffickers. We have had to rebuild the entire system, including the policies and procedures necessary to administer the asylum laws that Congress passed a long time ago. “
On Thursday, Mexico announced nonessential travel restrictions through its border with Guatemala and Belize, “to prevent the spread of Covid-19.” In what seemed more than coincidence to many, the move came on the same day the United States confirmed it will ship 2.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to Mexico.
But there are no quick fixes. House Democrats this week approved bills that would create a path to citizenship for millions of young undocumented immigrants and allow a path to legal status for some farm workers. Biden is planning programs that allow Central Americans to apply for refugee status from their home countries and has also promised to push for $ 4 billion in US aid for Central America.
Kumar said: “The situation in Central America is getting worse. They are having more devastating climate change and insecurity and what we are seeing at the border is sadly a symptom of all this. Now, how do we really devise a Latin American policy so that we can begin to address it?
“One of the things that [Barack] Obama put in place was allowing children to show up in their home country at the US embassy to be processed for not making the trip, Trump removed that option and that’s where we saw a real influx. Biden is now re-implementing that policy and it will be a matter of publicizing it. “
For now, Biden, who has to recover the pieces of the brutal Trump regime and the pandemic, seems to have time and political good will on his side.
Ali Noorani, President and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, said: “The previous administration had every intention of treating migrants in the cruellest way possible. In fact, that was the point. The intention of the Biden administration is to treat people with compassion and to keep the country safe.
“So what we expect is a clear set of metrics that show that Biden’s management is being effective. How many hours do unaccompanied children stay at CBP facilities? How long does it take to identify legal guardians in the US? How long does it take to adjudicate cases?
“Let’s see where we are today and every week, every month, let’s see how things are improving.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism