(CNN) — The White House may be reluctant to call the situation along the southwest border, where hundreds of migrant children are crossing alone, a crisis. But it is fast becoming a political emergency for the new president.
As is often the case, the plight of desperate people fleeing poverty, repression, crime, and natural disasters in the hope of a better life in America is churning in Washington’s political maelstrom. The fact that so many of those affected are so young and crammed into detention centers in the midst of a pandemic makes it all the more tragic.
The surge in migrant crossings in recent weeks has offered Republicans an opportunity to brand President Joe Biden as naive and soft on illegal immigration. But he is also mounting pressure from within his own party from progressives haunted by the arrest of hundreds of young people crossing the border.
The controversy is exacerbating tensions in Congress as Democrats move the first immigration bills this week, one that provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children and another that provides legal protections. to migrant farm workers, who may end up being blocked by Republicans in the Senate 50-50.
It is also raising the question of whether border security and the fate of millions of undocumented immigrants already in the United States, issues that have challenged Republican and Democratic presidents since Ronald Reagan, can ever be solved given the nation’s current polarization. and the rich political incentives for them to be exploited for superficial political ends.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, for example, told CNN’s Manu Raju on Monday that he doubted that a long-awaited comprehensive immigration plan to give 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship would have any chance in the current Congress. .
LOOK: President Biden Changes US Citizenship Test – 2008 Model Returns
The border conflagration is especially timely for the Republican Party, as immigration is an issue where lawmakers on both sides of the pro-and anti-Donald Trump divide in the party can unite. There’s nothing like the scorched earth rhetoric of immigration to cheer up the grassroots and spark a fury on conservative television. The basis of Trump’s appeal in 2016 was often racist rhetoric on immigration, although it is less clear that his hype of border crises and immigrant crime helped Republicans in 2018 and 2020.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy pushed all immigration buttons during a trip to the border on Monday, taking the opportunity to divert attention from the popular $ 1 covid-19 bailout bill. , 9 billion from Biden and a vaccination campaign that has left most Americans happy with the president’s handling of the pandemic.
It’s more than a crisis. This is human suffering, ”said the California Republican near the US-Mexico border. «This crisis is created by the presidential policies of this new administration. There is no other way to claim it than a Biden border crisis. “
McCarthy’s empathy for the victims of a complicated humanitarian story may have been genuine. But he was also a staunch supporter of the previous administration, which followed an inhumane zero-tolerance program that separated children from their parents at the border and was left with hundreds of children whose parents cannot yet be traced.
McCarthy also borrowed Trump-style rhetoric on Monday, with an alarmist speech about immigrants sneaking across the border after traveling from Muslim-majority nations or impoverished non-white populations sometimes linked to terrorism that could provoke racial prejudice. in the U.S. He said he had asked Border Patrol agents who they were catching.
In addition to Central Americans, the response was: “Yemen, Iran, Sri Lanka. That’s what’s going on… They even talked about Chinese too, ”McCarthy said, at a time when there is growing concern about anti-Asian violence in the United States in the wake of a pandemic that originated in China.
How to call a crisis?
While Republicans are taking advantage of the tense circumstances at the border for political gain, there is little doubt that what is unfolding should be described as a “crisis.”
The sudden increase in children crossing the border alone has highlighted a change in policy from the Biden administration. When Trump was president, border officials had been turning away migrants, including children, after implementing a public health order related to the pandemic. While the Biden administration still largely follows that policy for adults and families, it has allowed children to come to the U.S. alone, resulting in more minors in federal custody.
More than 4,000 children are stranded in rudimentary facilities run by the Border Patrol. On Monday, officials told CNN that the administration would use the Dallas Convention Center to accommodate children ages 15 to 17 to allow time for immigration hearings to take place.
LEE: Why do immigrants make such a dangerous journey to get to the United States? CNN spoke to them at the border
The federal government is often surprised by immigration crises, sudden health emergencies, and national disasters. It can take weeks to get the bureaucracy up and running. And comprehensive policies, such as trying to stabilize nations, such as Honduras or El Salvador, where many migrants come from, can take years to slow the pace of arrivals at the border.
But it’s hard to argue that the Biden administration’s handling of the policy of increasing migrant children has been skillful. The fight reflects an administration that has already been challenged to cope with the vastness of the pandemic that was hit by the border trapdoor before key officials were in place or there had been time to properly plan or implement new policies.
The White House has spent days refusing to call border crossings a “crisis,” a semantic game that risked leaving the impression that it was not necessarily giving a serious issue the attention it demanded. But presidents also cannot afford to choose their crises, especially the early ones that can define the perceptions of a new administration.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was discussing the definitions Monday, with Republicans ready to attack any missteps.
“We recognize that this is a big problem,” Psaki said in an exchange with CNN’s Phil Mattingly, when asked if the border was caught in a mess.
“(We) always have fun with labels here, but I’d say our focus is on solutions,” said Psaki. «Clearly, the numbers are enormous. This is a huge challenge, and it certainly reflects the use of every lever in the federal government to help address that, “he said.
The administration has in fact begun to show greater urgency. He has taken personnel from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security to the border states. The new Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help manage children who have crossed the border. Biden sent a team of senior officials to the border earlier this month.
But the cornerstone of the White House’s public statements remains that it is Trump’s fault.
“The last administration left us with a dismantled and inoperable system and, as with any other problem, we are going to do everything possible to fix it,” said Psaki.
Presidents often blame their predecessors for the initial problems. But it is not a position that is sustainable for long, as the occupants of the Oval Office are expected to solve the toughest problems.
While Biden successfully projects himself as an empathetic commander-in-chief who stands on the crest of the worst national emergency since World War II, he seems a bit overwhelmed by events on the border. While his approval rating was 51% in a CNN / SSRS poll last week, a level Trump never reached, only 43% of people approve of his handling of immigration, a potential red flag.
One issue the White House may need to address more directly is the possible perception that a more humane immigration policy means that it is a good time for migrants to cross the border.
Senior White House officials have repeatedly warned that potential migrants should not form such an impression.
In December, Biden, while still president-elect, said he was concerned that lifting Trump’s tough policies too quickly could bring “2 million people to our border.”
LOOK: Mexico says it works for the safety of unaccompanied migrant minors under its protection
The new White House ended the former president’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which required migrants to stay south of the border to wait for their asylum cases to be heard in US courts. The fact that some previously covered by the system were admitted to the United States could have caused mixed messages about the true situation.
The New York Times reported Sunday that many of the undocumented immigrants facing arduous and dangerous travel through Mexico have been informed by human smugglers that Biden has opened the border to them.
That raises the question of whether the president himself might need a more personal and direct warning for migrants not to attempt a dangerous crossing, which would penetrate foreign media.
Such a message delivered with Biden’s trademark empathy could be a main topic at the new administration’s first formal presidential press conference, which officials say will take place this month.
CNN’s Priscilla Álvarez contributed to this report.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism