Analysis: Biden vows to ease border surge as Republicans sense a political opening

Analysis: Biden vows to ease border surge as Republicans sense a political opening

Originally Published in CNN

Analysis by Stephen Collinson - March 22, 2021

Joe Biden is pledging to take new steps to ease a surge of child migrants at the southern border as his White House parries Republican attacks over a wrenching humanitarian challenge that threatens to tarnish his fast start as president.

After weeks of refusing to call the crossings that have overwhelmed border posts a "crisis," the administration is making an aggressive attempt to defuse the situation and the toxic politics it has stirred in Washington.

The President said Sunday that the administration planned to rebuild a system that allows potential child migrants to seek asylum in their home countries to prevent them making the perilous journey through human trafficking networks to the US border with Mexico. 

"I know what's going on in those facilities," Biden said after returning to the White House from Camp David, pledging to travel to the border himself "at some point."

In a new sign of political urgency from the administration, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas did quadruple duty on four Sunday political TV shows, pushing back against criticism that the administration was caught off guard by the migrant surge and actively contributed to it with a swift rewriting of immigration rules when it took office.

"We are working round the clock 24/7," Mayorkas told CNN's Dana Bash on "State of the Union." "We have dealt with surges in the past and the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security will succeed."

Mayorkas dismissed accusations that the Biden administration reversed some of ex-President Donald Trump's policies it considered inhumane before it was ready to handle an influx. He could not give a precise timeline for when thousands of children could be moved from cramped border patrol stations to more suitable accommodation that is especially crucial amid the pandemic. Mayorkas also would not guarantee immediate press access to the inside of migrant border posts, citing restrictions due to Covid-19. The failure to do so has called into question the new White House's vows for more transparency and Biden's own pledge to always level with Americans and to tell them the truth about the extent of national crises.

The Homeland Security secretary also sought to counter false claims by Biden's Republican critics that the new White House has simply thrown open the border to everyone.

"We are elevating our messaging, so that the individuals do know that they cannot come to the border. The border is closed," Mayorkas told Bash.

A humanitarian and political problem

At the heart of the current crisis at the border is a humanitarian dilemma about what to do with single children and teenagers seeking to enter the country. As part of a slew of changes to immigration policy, the Biden administration reversed a Trump-era strategy of returning all single migrant children at the border, a practice that left them vulnerable to desperate conditions in grim camps or traffickers in Mexico. The children, many of whom have relatives in the US already, are now allowed into the United States pending asylum applications. Contrary to claims by Republicans, the border is not open to everyone. Most undocumented families and individuals who try to cross get turned back. 

Apart from the human context of the crisis — with thousands of desperate people fleeing violence, repression and the impact of natural disasters in Central America -- the situation is turning into a thorny political problem. It is distracting from Biden's hopes of selling his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 rescue plan to the public and competing for attention as officials plead with Americans to stick to social distancing to avoid a new spike in the pandemic before the vaccine drive can fully suppress infections. The issue is certain to occupy a large portion of Biden's long-awaited first formal press conference on Thursday, which he had hoped to use to highlight his response to the pandemic, including busting through his pledge to administer 100 million vaccine doses in his first 100 days more than a month early.

The controversy over the border is building on its own momentum and threatens to erode the already thin political space in which bipartisan immigration reform might take place in the Senate. Any crisis in which an administration appears outpaced by events is dangerous for a new White House. And the fate of the children is offering an immediate reminder that even in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic and consequent economic slump, a president can face multiple crises simultaneously. In recent days alone, Biden has juggled fears of a new wave of Covid-19, the immigration situation and waged a two-front diplomatic showdown with Russia and China.

Republicans sense that the child migrant crisis is an opening to damage Biden -- and Trump harnessed that Sunday by issuing a statement that included several misleading statements and accused the President of turning a "national triumph into a national disaster" at the border. Trump, whose White House pursued immigration policies that included the cruel separation of migrant families and children -- many of whom still can't be traced -- built his White House run in 2016 on a scorched earth immigration strategy. The issue remains powerful among GOP base voters and offers the former President a chance to reinject himself into political debate on an issue where Biden is vulnerable.

Controversy builds in Washington

The White House knew the number of migrants arriving at the border would swell once Biden took office. But they did not expect a surge of this size, according to CNN reporting published Saturday night based on conversations with more than a dozen administration officials. 

The rising numbers have overwhelmed processing points and forced the administration to call in the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up facilities to care for kids. More than 15,000 unaccompanied migrant minors are now in US custody, according to officials.

Republicans have seized on the border crisis with trips down to frontier states and by claiming that Biden's policies have caused open season for undocumented migrants. This is a perfect issue for the GOP as it allows the party to try to undermine the new Democratic President and draw attention away from his popular management of the pandemic. Immigration is a glue that fixes the GOP's splits, and allows pro- and anti-Trump factions to unite behind a single message. And with midterm elections ahead next year, illegal immigration is the best possible rallying call for the Republican base.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, recently returned from demagoguing the issue at the border, playing into racial prejudices by suggesting Yemenis, Sri Lankans and Chinese people were coming into the US.

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, lashed out at what members of his party uniformly call a "Biden border crisis." 

"The border right now is wide open because the Biden administration dismantled the very effective policies of the Trump administration and the agreements we had with Mexico and other Latin American countries," Cotton said on "Fox News Sunday."

Cotton misrepresented the true state of affairs at the border. But the power of the immigration debate lies in the suggestion of untamed immigration, with critics pointing to "outsiders" who they say have no right to be in America -- even though the law stipulates that people fleeing violence or other danger have a right to seek asylum. 

Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who does not have to fear a primary challenge from anti-immigration pro-Trump forces since he is retiring, is in a group of senators whom the White House might look to for bipartisan cooperation.

But the Ohio senator said people are not heeding Biden's warnings against people coming to the border.

"I spoke to single individuals who are coming over at night, men who told me that they'd heard what President Biden said and they were coming anyway," Portman said on CBS "Face the Nation" after touring facilities last week in Texas.

"I talked to children and talked to them about the messaging. And what they're hearing is that you can now come into the United States, which you can, as a kid. And so they're going to keep coming."

Vulnerability for the President

The White House responds to such criticism by accusing the Trump administration -- which made harsh anti-immigration laws an article of faith -- of leaving the system in disrepair. While the argument might be partially justified, no new administration can continually blame its predecessor once it has power and expect to avoid collateral political damage. 

A recent CNN/SSRS poll underscored how immigration is an issue on which Biden is most vulnerable.

While Biden's approval rating stood at 51% amid satisfaction with his handling of the pandemic since taking office, only 43% of Americans approved of his performance on the immigration issued and 49% disapproved. The poll was conducted more than two weeks ago, before the full extent of events on the border became clear.

Biden's hopes of solving this early challenge will now rest on the capacity of officials like Mayorkas to open sufficient facilities to move unaccompanied children from jammed border posts into Health and Human Services Department facilities and to stop immigrant flows even though smugglers and children know they can get a foothold in the US.

Aid to Central American states could make a difference in easing the conditions that cause migrants to flee. But such long-term solutions are unlikely to change the dynamic in the short term -- or slake what officials say is pent-up demand among immigrants that built during the Trump years.

The situation will also force the White House to balance its own desire to end the often cruel Trump administration policies while shielding the President from political vulnerability on the issue.

"We will not abandon our values and our principles. We will not abandon the needs of vulnerable children. That is what this is all about," Mayorkas said on "State of the Union." 

"We are executing on our plan. It does take time. It is difficult."


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