President Biden is facing a growing dilemma at the southern border that shows few signs of abating: the number of unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States steadily increasing in recent weeks.
Thousands of migrants have crossed the border in Biden’s first six weeks in office, many of them unaccompanied minors. The influx has tested the administration’s resources and ability to quickly implement its own strategy as Republicans sound alarms over what they have deemed a crisis of Biden’s making.
The Biden administration is rapidly adapting its approach to meet the need for space and staffing in a reflection of the seriousness of the situation.
“President Biden has asked senior members of his team to travel to the border region in order to provide a full briefing to him on the government response to the influx of unaccompanied minors and an assessment of additional steps that can be taken to ensure the safety and care of these children,” White House spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a statement.
Officials are reportedly working to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency involved, and The Washington Post reported that the administration is looking to convert family detention centers into processing facilities to more rapidly screen migrant children and their parents.
Those moves come a few weeks after the administration reopened a facility for migrant children in Texas despite Biden’s fervent criticism of the use of similar facilities during the Trump administration.
Experts said the influx of migrants seen in Biden’s first weeks in office is not significantly higher compared to past surges, but cautioned that the Trump administration’s efforts to make it more difficult to enter the country could complicate efforts to handle the challenge.
“There are plenty of instances in which there have been more people, but the past administration went out of its way to dismantle the institutions that make for a functioning immigration system,” said Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University.
“So what this administration is having to do is to rapidly ramp up the capacity to process the people who arrive at the border, to figure out how to house them while their requests for immigration relief are adjudicated … and figuring out how to get them, once they’re cleared epidemiologically, to family members who can care for them while they work through the immigration system,” he added.
Biden administration officials have discouraged migrants from the Northern Triangle region in Central America from making the trek to the U.S. border, warning the journey is dangerous, the United States lacks the capacity to process large numbers of people and that the majority of migrants are being turned away at the border.
Still, border agents are apprehending thousands of migrants a day, and even some Democrats have warned that the situation could develop into a full-blown crisis in the coming weeks.
Texas State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democrat who lives in the border town of McAllen, told The Hill the influx of migrants is fast becoming a crisis and that officials there do not have the resources they need to process the migrants or to test them all for COVID-19.
He said the Biden administration’s move to allow people to remain in the country while they await their immigration proceedings — a so-called “catch and release” practice that was banned under Trump — is encouraging migrants to make the dangerous trip, despite pleas from the White House that people stay home.
“It’s gotten worse,” Hinojosa said. “I don’t think, quite frankly, the Biden administration was aware of what’s happening on the ground here, which you can understand because they’re just coming in and trying to get people up to speed with what’s happening, but I don’t think they were aware there were that many coming across. The border patrol is overwhelmed, they’re throwing their hands up because they don’t know what to do.”
The Border Patrol reported averaging about 3,000 arrests per day in January. Officials have not disclosed the total number of apprehensions in recent weeks, but Reuters reported that Border Patrol agents arrested roughly 4,500 migrants on Wednesday alone, a number that rivals peak apprehension numbers in 2019 when former President Trump threatened to close down the border.
Biden made unraveling Trump’s immigration policies a priority upon taking office. The new administration halted construction of the border wall and halted the Migrant Protection Protocols that required migrants to remain in Mexico while awaiting processing while vowing to reunite families separated during the last four years.
“We certainly have a different approach,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday when asked if Biden’s shift in approach was encouraging migrants to make their way to the U.S. border. “We understand the outcome and the impact of that, but we are using every tool at our disposal, and we will use every official we can to convey clearly this is not the time to come.”
Republicans are looking to raise pressure on Biden to move authoritatively to address the issue.
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) on Friday requested a meeting with Biden, saying he feels “compelled to express great concern with the manner in which your administration is approaching this crisis.”
House Republicans have asked the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing on the border surge.
In a statement released Friday, Trump unloaded on Biden, accusing him of creating the crisis.
“Our border is now totally out of control thanks to the disastrous leadership of Joe Biden. Our great Border Patrol and ICE agents have been disrespected, demeaned, and mocked by the Biden Administration. A mass incursion into the country by people who should not be here is happening on an hourly basis, getting worse by the minute,” Trump said.
At the same time, liberals have expressed anger over the reopening of housing facilities for unaccompanied minors that were used under Trump.
The Pentagon confirmed Friday that the Biden administration may use a military base in Virginia to house unaccompanied minors as facilities along the border reach maximum capacity.
John Amaya, the former deputy chief of staff for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under former President Obama, told The Hill that Biden has done admirable work so far in unwinding Trump’s policies.
But he said before any comprehensive immigration bill is passed, Biden will need to have convinced lawmakers and the public that the border is secure, immigrants are being vetted, and that the entry process is seen as fair by Americans and migrants alike.
He said that will require Senate-confirmed agency heads and ground-level leaders that the Biden White House has been slow to put in place at ICE, Customs and Border Protection, and Health and Human Services.
“They’re doing a great job reviewing everything done by the last team and trying to do away with the Frankenstein monster Trump created and to try and institute a fair and just system that adheres to international laws and our own laws — that’s a huge and wonderful step,” Amaya said.
“Where they need a little more assistance, and it’s an internal decision, they need to put Senate confirmed heads of agencies in place,” he said. “The workforce, officers, agents, they need that Senate confirmed leadership and it’s sorely missing. It makes a profound difference when you have those leaders in place.”
Some Migrants at Mexican Border Test Positive for Coronavirus
By Damià Bonmatí, Noticias Telemundo Investiga and Martha Alicia López
BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Miriam Izaguirre, a 35-year-old asylum-seeker from Honduras, crossed the Rio Grande at dawn Monday with her young son and turned herself in to the authorities.
A few hours later she was released, and the first thing she did was take a rapid test for Covid-19 at the Brownsville bus station. They told her her test came out positive.
“Right now we were tested for Covid and they separated about eight of us because we were positive,” she told Noticias Telemundo Investiga. “We are waiting right now.” She was waiting to catch a bus to Houston.
Other migrant families who also said they had tested positive were waiting to go to other destinations: North Carolina, Maryland and New Jersey.
The city of Brownsville administers these rapid tests at the bus station, after migrant families are released by the Border Patrol. A spokesperson for Brownsville confirmed that, since they began doing these tests Jan. 25, 108 migrants have tested positive for Covid-19, which is 6.3 percent of those who took the test.
Asylum-seekers released by Border Patrol undergo a Covid-19 diagnostic test in Brownsville, Texas on March 1, 2021.Damia
In response to Noticias Telemundo Investiga, a spokesperson for the city said in an email that Brownsville does not have the authority to retain these migrants who plan to travel to dozens of cities throughout the country. The city assured that municipal workers recommend to those who test positive to keep quarantine as indicated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The city employees suggest to families they go to nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and nonprofits in the the border area who can take them in and isolate them in order to keep quarantine.
“The City of Brownsville continues to follow all guidelines provided by the CDC and DSHS for Covid-19. The migrants who test positive at the B-Metro facility are advised of quarantine procedures and are asked to socially distance,” Felipe Romero, Brownsville’s communications and marketing director, said in an emailed statement. DSHS refers to the state’s Department of State Health Services.
“There are several NGOs providing resources to a positive case,” the email states. “For example, organizations help with quarantine either in a shelter or at hotel. Since the City started testing the migrants on January 25, there has been 6.3% of positive cases. The Cameron County positivity rate is 13.8%.”
Several of the asylum-seekers who tested positive told Noticias Telemundo Investiga they were planning to leave Brownsville for their destinations; one of them bought a bus ticket for the journey.
Eva Orellana, 29, who is from Honduras and who tested positive, said she was going to take the bus to North Carolina with her 3-year-old daughter. “On the way, we were wearing a mask all the time, gel, washing our hands,” she said. “Really, I don’t feel anything.”
Those who tested positive and spoke to Telemundo did not have any document indicating their Covid-19 test results; they said they were simply told by the station workers after taking the test.
They said the station workers told them to wait in a different waiting area than the rest of the migrant families, but they still had freedom to move, a few meters from the rest.
Noticias Telemundo Investiga asked Customs and Border Patrol about the release of migrant families and Covid-19 testing. A spokesperson said in an email that CBP personnel conduct initial inspections for symptoms or risk factors associated with Covid-19 and consult as appropriate with onsite medical personnel, the CDC or local health systems.
Suspected Covid-19 cases “are referred to local health systems for appropriate testing, diagnosis, and treatment,” according to CBP.
Asylum-seekers are separated from other passengers after testing positive for Covid-19 at a bus station in Brownsville, Texas, on March 1, 2021.Damia Bonmati / Telemundo Investiga News
At the station, Martín Fernández, an Omnibus Express worker, said that the bus company where he works respects the protocols of federal authorities: passengers must wear masks on board the vehicle and use hand sanitizer gel. But they cannot, he clarified, ask passengers for Covid-19 tests before getting on buses.
For years, bus stations have been at the the epicenter of the arrival of migrants to the border. Different administrations have released tens of thousands of immigrant families in these buildings and, from there, they buy tickets to reach the residences of their relatives in the United States.
They are long routes, sometimes lasting days, crossing the country from station to station. Migrants are usually released with a permit called “parole” or under supervision with an ankle monitor. Once they are at their new destinations, they continue their asylum processes to try to stay in the United States.
The last few weeks has seen an increase in the number of families who have been allowed to enter the U.S. and continue their quest for asylum, as Noticias Telemundo Investiga has verified.