For weeks, the Biden administration has been struggling to keep up with an influx of migrants at the southern border, raising questions about the impact of its policies and whether it will live up to the promises then-candidate Biden made on the campaign trail.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about the issue during her press conference Tuesday, prompting her to push back on adding labels to the situation.
“I don’t think we need to sit here and put new labels on what we’ve already conveyed is challenging,” she said.
As early as Feb. 25, Psaki equivocated on whether the southern border was facing a “crisis.” “I don’t think I’m going to put new labels on it from here or from the podium, but it is a priority of the administration,” she said.
Around that time, Axios reported that more than 700 children were placed in the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and news surfaced that the administration was opening a facility to house migrant children.
Those developments prompted questions about Biden’s candidacy, which featured, among other things, a pledge to end former President Trump’s practice of putting “kids in cages.” While the White House has maintained it’s not putting kids in “cages,” many have decried the practice as a continuation of what migrants saw under Trump. Biden also reportedly told lawmakers in 2019 that he wouldn’t detain migrant children.
Last week, The New York Times reported that Biden brought the issue to the attention of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, hoping to avoid another border crisis. Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas denied the border faced a crisis, instead saying that “there is a challenge at the border that we are managing, and we have our resources dedicated to managing it.”
CNN later reported that Health and Human Services (HHS), which takes custody of migrant children after CBP, was having trouble keeping up with the pace of arrivals. “We’re apprehending more kids than we can release,” a senior DHS official was quoted as saying. A senior CBP official similarly said “[a]ll the holding places are full, there’s a constant backlog.”
CBP’s capacity reportedly faced additional strain as the agency held children in their custody for more than three days. The situation was worsened by the ongoing pandemic which limited HHS’ ability to house the influx of migrants.
Psaki has maintained that the administration sought to abide by COVID-19 protocols, but it’s unclear how much authorities were screening migrants for the virus. According to Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, last week, thousands of migrants haven’t been tested.
“Over 10,000 people have come in through the lower Rio Grande Valley,” Cuellar said, according to KTXS 12. “Those folks are not being tested.”
CBP reportedly disagreed, telling the outlet that “CBP personnel conduct initial inspections for symptoms or risk factors associated with COVID-19 and consult with onsite medical personnel, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or local health systems as appropriate.”
By March 5, Psaki was telling the press that Biden had asked for senior members of his team to visit the border and brief him on the government’s response to the migrant situation. Just days prior to that, CBP said 13 migrants were killed in a car accident in Southern California after being smuggled, along with dozens of others, across the border.
The officials’ border meeting appeared to occur on Saturday when Mayorkas and other officials discussed capacity needs at the border.
“Officials also discussed ways to ensure the fair and humane treatment of immigrants, the safety of the workforce, and the wellbeing of communities nearby in the face of a global pandemic,” the White House said.
Days later, Mayorkas sent an email asking DHS staff to help with the “surge in migration along the Southwest Border.”
He added: “You have likely seen the news about the overwhelming numbers of migrants seeking access to this country along the Southwest Border.”
“President Biden and I are committed to ensuring our Nation has a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system while continuing to balance all of the other critical DHS missions.”
Mayorkas has also publicly acknoweldged the stressful nature of the situation. “It is a stressful challenge, and we are — that is why, quite frankly, we are working as hard as we are not only in addressing the urgency of the challenge, but also in building the capacity to manage it and to meet our humanitarian aspirations in execution of the President’s vision,” he said during a briefing last week.
Former Trump administration officials have warned that Biden’s policies would lead to a devastating surge at the border.
“The radical, open border policies of this administration … [have] eroded every successful tool of authority we have,” former CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan told Fox News last week.
“And now, they’re shocked that we see a crisis on our southern border that’s already here. It’s truly remarkable what we’re seeing.” Morgan, in particular, has argued that the administration’s policies incentivize illegal immigration.
The White House referred Fox News to Psaki’s comments at her press briefing on Tuesday.
On March 2, Psaki said: “We are not encouraging people to come, but we also believe, differently from the past administration, that we are not going to turn away kids who are under 18.”
Fox News’ Adam Shaw and Peter Hasson contributed to this report.