'Blindsided': Biden faces tough test in reversing Trump's cruel border legacy

As unaccompanied children reach the US, Republicans seek political gain. The White House has a fight on its hands

Lauded for his human touch, Joe Biden is facing an early political and moral test over how his government treats thousands of migrant children who make the dangerous journey to America alone.

Officials say the number of people caught attempting to cross the US-Mexico border is on pace to hit its highest number for 20 years. Single adults and families are being expelled under coronavirus safety rules inherited from Donald Trump.

But a growing number of children, some as young as six years old, from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are arriving at the southern border without parents or guardians. These minors are brought to border patrol facilities – where many languish in cramped, prison-like conditions for days on end.

The fast-developing humanitarian emergency shows how Biden’s determination to break from Trump’s harsh, nativist crackdown in favour of a more compassionate approach has collided with the reality of finite resources and a broken system.

“I do think that they were blindsided by this surge,” said María Teresa Kumar, founding president of the grassroots political organisation Voto Latino. “As someone that monitored this a lot, I didn’t see that coming and I don’t think the community saw that coming. It took everybody by surprise.

“It is heart-wrenching knowing that there are children that are cold and don’t have family. It’s one of these cases where there seems to be no right answers. Knowing the people inside the administration are very much on the side of immigrants speaks to me that there are real moral dilemmas happening right now and I would not want to be in that position.”

Democrats have called the situation a “challenge” and “problem” and blamed Trump’s legacy. Republicans have rushed to brand it the first “crisis” and “disaster” of Biden’s presidency. The battle is proof that border access remains one of the most complex, emotive and radioactive issues in American politics.

Trump launched his campaign for the presidency by promising to build a wall, routinely vilified migrants and, ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, spoke often of an “invasion”. Biden stopped construction of the wall and promised to unwind 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, it was the highest level since March 2019 and included a particular rise in unaccompanied children.

Many such children head to the US to reunite with family members or escape poverty, crime and violence. Central America has been hit by hurricanes and the economic fallout of Covid-19. In an ABC interview this week, Biden denied that more migrants were coming because he is “a nice guy”, insisting: “They come because their circumstance is so bad.”

Under Trump, unaccompanied children were sent straight back to Mexico. Biden decided 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 clear the system is not fit for purpose, leaving about 4,500 children stuck in facilities designed for adult men. Lawyers who visited one 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 centre in Dallas to house up to 3,000 teenage boys. It also deployed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), which typically responds to floods, storms and other disasters, to help shelter and transport children at least until early June.

Republicans seized on that move as evidence a disaster is unfolding. The 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’s more than a crisis. This is human heartbreak.”

The message has resounded through a conservative media that finds Biden an elusive target. Trump made wildly exaggerated claims in a Fox News interview: “They’re destroying our country. People are coming in by the hundreds of thousands, And, frankly, our country can’t handle it. It is a crisis like we have rarely had and, certainly, we have never had on the border.”

For Republicans, reeling from election defeat, internal divisions and failure to block Biden’s $1.9tn coronavirus relief bill, the border offers a political lifeline.

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center thinktank in Washington, said: “If the numbers go down next month this isn’t a crisis, but I think what they are expecting is that they’re not going to go down and that this is going to be something that will be an enduring and endemic problem.

“It’s something that energises and unites the Trump voting coalition and could easily be seen as a failure on behalf of the administration by just enough of the people who voted for him but aren’t hardcore Democrats. So I think it’s a very smart move by Republicans to play this out and Biden needs to figure out how you can be compassionate while not being naively welcoming. He has not yet figured out how to do that.”

Others, however, regard the Republican response as predictable ploy by a party obsessed with demonising migrants. Kumar said: “They’re phonies and it is coldly calculated because they know they have problems with suburban white women voters, and they are trying to make a case for it for the midterms.

“It’s cynical and gross because when children were literally dying at the border, when they had a president that was teargassing refugees, not one of them stood up. It’s callous and cold political expediency and it’s shameful.”

The White House has pointed out that the Trump administration forcibly separated nearly 3,000 children from 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 rip a nine-year-old child out of the hands of his or her parent and separate that family to deter future migration. That, to me, is a humanitarian crisis.”

Mayorkas argues that Trump’s decision to cut staffing, bed capacity and other resources was reckless given the likelihood that the number of migrants would rise again as the pandemic waned.

“The system was gutted,” he said, “facilities were closed and they cruelly expelled young children into the hands of traffickers. We have had to rebuild the entire system, including the policies and procedures required to administer the asylum laws that Congress passed long ago.”

John Katko, a New York Republican, addresses the press in El Paso.
John Katko, a New York Republican, addresses the press in El Paso. Photograph: Justin Hamel/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday, Mexico announced restrictions on non-essential travel across its border with Guatemala and Belize, “to prevent the spread of Covid-19”. In what to many appeared more than coincidence, the measure came the same day the US confirmed it will send 2.5m doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to Mexico.

But there are no quick fixes. House Democrats this week passed bills that would create a path to citizenship for millions of young undocumented migrants and allow a path to legal status for some agricultural workers. Biden is planning programmes that allow Central Americans to apply for refugee status from their home countries and has also vowed to push for $4bn in US aid for Central America.

Kumar said: “The situation in Central America is getting worse. They’re having more devastating climate change and insecurity and what we’re seeing at the border is sadly a symptom of all of this. Now how do we actually figure out a Latin American policy so that we can start addressing it?

“One of the things that [Barack] Obama put in place was allowing children to present themselves in home country at the US embassy to get processed so they wouldn’t make the journey, Trump eliminated that option so that’s where we saw a real influx. Biden is now putting that policy back in place and it’s going to be a matter of advertising it.”

For now Biden, who has to pick up the pieces from Trump’s brutal regime and from the pandemic, appears to have time and political goodwill on his side.

Ali Noorani, president and chief executive of the National Immigration Forum, said: “The previous administration had every intention of treating migrants as cruelly as possible. In fact, that was the point. The intent of the Biden administration is to treat people with compassion and to keep the country safe.

“So what we’re looking forward to is a set of clear metrics that show that the Biden administration is being effective. How many hours are unaccompanied children staying in CBP facilities? How long is it taking to identify legal guardians in the US? How long is taking to adjudicate cases?

“Let’s see where we are today and every week, every month, let’s see how things are improving.”

Contributor

David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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