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During his first formal news conference, President Biden defended his decision to roll back several of his predecessor’s immigration policies, while refuting suggestions that his administration’s more humanitarian approach to immigration is to blame for the rise in the number of migrants, including unaccompanied minors, arriving at the southern border.
“I’d like to think it’s because I’m a nice guy but it’s not. It’s what happens every year,” Biden said Thursday at the White House, insisting that the recent increase in migration is simply a reflection of seasonal patterns and worsening conditions that have been driving people to flee their home countries for the past several years.
“Did anyone suggest there was a 31 percent increase under [then-President Donald] Trump because they thought he was a nice guy and he was doing good things at the border?” Biden asked, referring to the spike in southern border apprehensions that took place between January and February of 2019. This year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported a 28 percent increase in the number of migrants apprehended along the southern border during the month of February.
Biden emphasized that the vast majority of migrants, including families, who have attempted to enter the U.S. over the southern border have been turned away under a Trump-era emergency public health order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to curb the spread of COVID-19. However, the Biden administration has chosen not to apply that order to unaccompanied minors, children without lawful immigration status who attempt to enter the country alone or with someone other than a parent or legal guardian.
“The only people we’re not going to let sit there on the other side of the Rio Grande with no help is children,” Biden said Thursday. “No previous administration has done that either, except Trump. I’m not gonna do it, not gonna do it.”
But while Biden argued that annual upticks in migration at the southern border are unrelated to his actions as president, he did point the finger at Trump for creating the circumstances that have left his administration scrambling to safely accommodate the growing number of migrant children in its custody. The backlog of children forced to wait in cramped conditions at CBP facilities, Biden said, is “totally unacceptable.”
In a call with reporters ahead of Thursday’s press conference, administration officials said that there were currently more than 4,900 unaccompanied migrant children in CBP custody at the border. By late Thursday afternoon, that number had grown to 5,156, according to data provided by the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.
Biden noted that Trump cut humanitarian aid to the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where a significant portion of the migrants, including minors, currently seeking protection in the U.S. are from. He also pointed to decisions made during Trump’s term by leadership at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, such as a hiring freeze and a refusal to expand bed capacity at shelters for migrant children even as the number of arrivals continued to grow.
“He dismantled all the elements that exist to deal with what had been a problem and has continued to be a problem for a long time,” said Biden. “What we’re doing now is attempting to rebuild the system that can accommodate what is happening today.”
The president outlined a number of steps his administration is taking to build up the shelter capacity “that Trump dismantled” in order to limit the amount of time children are forced to spend in Border Patrol stations. They included opening a 5,000-bed overflow facility at Fort Bliss in Texas.
Biden, however, has also been criticized for not moving faster to ramp up shelter capacity for unaccompanied children, who were already starting to arrive at the border in growing numbers before he officially took office.
“The misinformation being given by President Biden on immigration is stunning,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted during Biden’s speech. “It’s clear he does not have the situational awareness he needs to understand what is going on at the border or how to fix it.”
Despite repeated attempts by Biden and other senior officials to send the message that “the border is closed” to discourage migrants from making the journey to the U.S., members of the president’s administration have also acknowledged that Biden’s promise of a more humane approach to immigration may be inspiring families in desperate situations to take the risk anyway.
Asked whether he may have moved too quickly to reverse some of Trump’s policies, like the “Remain in Mexico” program that forced thousands of asylum seekers to wait in dangerous conditions south of the border while their cases were adjudicated in U.S. immigration court, Biden demurred.
“I make no apologies for ending programs that did not exist before Trump became president, that have an incredibly negative impact on the law, international law as well as on human dignity,” he said.
On Wednesday, Biden announced that he was putting Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of efforts to stem the tide of migration along the southern border. Harris’s role, which Biden noted would be similar to the one he was tasked with as vice president in the Obama administration, will be largely focused on working with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries to curb the current flow of migrants and to address the root causes of migration from those countries.
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