More than two months into his presidency, president Joe Biden is confronting one of the first major challenges of his term. An increase in migrants arriving at the southern border with Mexico has become an early test for the Biden administration.
For weeks, White House officials have been at pains to avoid calling it a crisis. Asked on March 1st if the situation was a "crisis", secretary of homeland security Alejandro Mayorkas replied: "The answer is no. I think there is a challenge at the border that we are managing."
Press secretary Jen Psaki has sparred with reporters on the issue at the daily White House press briefings. Having deftly avoided the "c" word, she inadvertently referred to the "crisis on the border" at a press conference last week. When a reporter asked if this signalled a change in the administration's policy she quickly corrected herself – "challenges on the border", she clarified.
While the White House continues to dabble in semantics, the reality on the ground is grim.
Figures show that more than 100,000 migrants were apprehended at the southwestern border in February alone, a 25 per cent increase on the previous month, and a higher number than the same month in previous years.
By comparison, only 17,000 migrants were apprehended in April last year – the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Of the 100,000 migrants apprehended in February, more than 9,500 were unaccompanied minors.
While immigration experts point to the seasonal nature of migration flows, which typically surge in the spring, the number of people moving north from central America has been increasing since last autumn.
Republicans have laid the blame at the door of the Biden administration, claiming that the president’s decision to halt construction of the border wall, the signing of executive orders undoing many of Trump’s immigration policies, and promises to revise America’s immigration system, have incentivised people to travel.
Democrats argue that the "surge" reflects pent-up demand because of the pandemic and a failure to address immigration and asylum backlogs during the Trump administration.
At his press conference on Thursday, Biden rejected the notion that people were coming because he was a “nice guy”, insisting that it happens every year.
He also cited his Irish ancestors’ experience of going to America on a coffin ship to escape the Famine to illustrate the desperate choices people make.
The immediate problem for the president is the issue of unaccompanied minors. The previous administration’s zeal in separating children from their parents at the border, and keeping some children in cage-like structures, was one of the most controversial episodes of the Trump years.
Now, Biden is faced with a similar problem as thousands of children present themselves at the border. Like Donald Trump, the Biden administration is still turning back the vast majority of migrants arriving at the border. But while he has kept in place a rule introduced by Trump at the start of the pandemic allowing him to expel newly-arrived migrants, Biden has decided that children will be exempt.
The result is that authorities are being overwhelmed by the number of minors arriving, a situation that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Legally, children who are picked up by border guards (or who in most cases surrender themselves voluntarily) should be held in border facilities for not more than 72 hours, after which time they are transported to proper shelter facilities run by the department of health and human services (HHS) before they are connected with relatives or sponsors in America.
But these HHS facilities are already at full capacity, in part because Covid restrictions permit fewer beds and require special isolation spaces to house children who test positive for coronavirus. Thousands are being held much longer than the 72 hours permitted at the border facilities.
Pictures have emerged in recent days of children lying on floors under foil mats – scenes reminiscent of the child separation crisis of the Trump era.
The Biden administration has also been sharply criticised for not allowing media access to the sites – photos of the shelters have been mainly circulated by visiting Congress members.
The White House this week announced it was allowing one TV crew into one of the centres – a concession that was dismissed as insufficient and selective. Biden gave a vague commitment to expand access to journalists at his press conference on Thursday, but did not commit to a date.
In a sign that the administration is appreciating the urgency of the matter, Biden appointed Kamala Harris to manage the issue this week – her first major policy responsibility as vice-president.
“I can think of nobody who is better qualified to do this,” he said, noting her previous work as attorney general for California.
Harris will be tasked with liaising with Mexico and the northern triangle of countries – Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala – to stem the flow of migrants. It is a hugely challenging task, as Biden well knows given that he was assigned a similar role by former president Barack Obama.
Whether Harris’s appointment will signal a step change in the administration’s handling of the migration challenge remains to be seen. Much like the EU tried to stop its migrant crisis by outsourcing the problem to countries of origin, there is much talk from the administration about tackling the root causes of migration – a policy that can take years to reap results.
But there are also moves afoot to tackle the immediate logjam crippling border facilities. The HHS has requested the use of dormitories at two military sites and convention centres in Texas. It may also reopen Homestead, one of the country’s largest child migrant facilities, which is located in Florida and which was closed in 2019.
Politically, the Biden administration is under pressure to show it is in control of an increasingly fraught situation at the border. Right-wing news channels are covering the immigration issue relentlessly. There are also signs that the border issue is beginning to influence the public’s thinking on immigration reform more generally.
Worryingly for the Biden administration, which hopes to initiate broad immigration reform, a Politico-Morning Consult poll this week showed declining support for providing citizenship to undocumented migrants – even among Democrats.
Just as Obama tried to act tough on illegal migration at the border in order to win support from Republicans for his broader immigration reform package, the Biden-Harris administration may be willing to take a harder line on illegal migration than many of the more progressive members of the Democratic party may like.
Ultimately, as Harris takes on her new role, she may find that there are no easy solutions.