White House defends policy as migrants at border increase

Biden seeks to retain focus on vaccine rollout and relief plan despite Republican criticism

Migrants wait to enter a shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco state, Mexico: 100,441 people tried to cross the southwest border in February. More than 9,000 were unaccompanied children. Photograph: Nicolo Filippo Rosso

The White House defended its immigration policy on Monday as federal agencies struggled to respond to an increase in migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border.

"We recognise this is a big problem," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. "The last administration left us a dismantled and unworkable system and, like any other problem, we are going to do all we can to solve it."

Ms Psaki was facing questions over the administration's handling of the situation, which has seen an influx of migrants from central America arriving at the border in recent weeks to seek asylum.

Figures from the US Custom and Border Protection last week revealed that 100,441 people tried to enter the southwest border in February – a 28 per cent increase on the previous month. More than 9,000 were unaccompanied children.


Secretary of homeland security Alejandro Mayorkas dispatched Fema – the Federal Emergency Management Agency – to the border area on Saturday to try to help with the escalating situation.

The agency will help transfer children from Custom and Border Protection (CBP) custody to facilities run by the department of health and human services. It comes amid reports that children are being held longer than the legally required 72 hours at the CBP stations along the border.

Natural disasters

The increase in migrants arriving at America’s southern border from Central America may be a result of recent hurricanes and natural disasters, but it also likely reflects hopes that the newly installed US president will have a less hardline approach to immigration.

Joe Biden signed executive orders in the first few days of his presidency undoing some of the immigration policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump. He is also seeking to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package in Congress. But the Biden administration has warned migrants not to make the journey to America.

"It is never safe to come to the United States through irregular channels, and this is particularly true during a pandemic," Mr Mayorkas said over the weekend. "To effectively protect both the health and safety of migrants and our communities from the spread of Covid-19, individuals apprehended at the border continue to be denied entry and are returned."

House minority leader Kevin McCarthy led a delegation of Republicans to the border region on Monday to highlight what he termed a “Biden border crisis”.

“The security of our nation and our border is first and foremost the responsibility of our president. I came down here because I heard of the crisis. It’s more than a crisis – this is human heartbreak,” he said at the border in El Paso. “It didn’t have to happen. This crisis is created by the presidential policies of this new administration.”

Coronavirus relief

The increase in migrant arrivals is also a dominant news story on conservative media channels, including Fox News, over the last few weeks.

The new focus on the situation at the border comes as Mr Biden seeks to keep the focus on America's successful vaccine rollout plan, and the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan passed by Congress last week.

In remarks at the White House on Monday, Mr Biden touted two new milestones that he expects to reach next week – the administration of more than 100 million coronavirus vaccine shots and the distribution of 100 million stimulus cheques to Americans.

“Help is here, and hope is here, in real and tangible ways,” he said.

The president will travel to Pennsylvania on Tuesday for an event to promote the stimulus plan, while vice-president Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, visited Nevada on Monday.

The United States has administered more than 92 million vaccines, and is administering about 2.3 million vaccines a day on average.

Three vaccines – Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – have been approved for use in the US.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent