As the number of unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody ballooned this month, President Joe Biden’s team raced to find more places to house them, leaving thousands of children stuck in jail-like facilities for longer than the 72 hours allowed under the law.
But the process of scouring government sites for adequate shelters was taking too long for Biden, who is now staring down a problem threatening to spiral out of control.
“He was disappointed that we hadn’t gotten answers from other agencies faster or that (the facilities) wouldn’t be ready for children faster,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment of the response. “He made it pretty clear that there were times when he didn’t think we were moving fast enough.”
From its earliest weeks in office, the Biden administration has been playing catch up, scrambling to stem a growing immigration crisis on the US southern border, where there are now more than 14,000 unaccompanied children in US custody, officials said Thursday.
Republicans have assailed Biden’s handling of the situation, blaming his early actions to overturn some of the Trump administration’s draconian border enforcement policies for inducing what is shaping up to be a historic surge of migrants to the border.
“These are all self-inflicted wounds,” a Homeland Security official said.
Interviews with more than a dozen administration officials, people involved in the presidential transition, lawmakers and congressional aides provide an inside look at how the gravity of the situation along the border began to sink in for the administration as it took power two months ago – and how it’s struggled to address the problem ever since.
Biden administration officials say they expected the number of migrants arriving at the US border would swell once they took office, given their drastically different approach to immigration compared to former President Donald Trump’s, but they did not anticipate a surge this big, which Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warns will likely reach a two-decade peak.
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who traveled to the border with Mayorkas Friday, described the conditions in border facilities, where there are now more than 5,000 minors in custody.
Biden's first 100 days
“Just left the border processing facility. 100s of kids packed into big open rooms. In a corner, I fought back tears as a 13 yr old girl sobbbed uncontrollably explaining thru a translator how terrified she was, having been separated from her grandmother and without her parents,” he tweeted Friday.
“The Biden Administration is trying their best to uphold the rule of law with humanity. They have a ton of work ahead to clean up the mess Trump left them, but their intentions are true,” Murphy added.
In dealing with the political fallout, Biden officials and congressional Democrats have attempted to deflect blame. A less-than-cooperative transition from the Trump administration, pent up demand stemming from Trump’s hardline immigration policies, and worsening conditions in Central America have all contributed to the surge, they say.
But the White House’s emergency actions in recent weeks – scrambling to find more beds for kids in federal custody and calling in the Federal Emergency Management Agency to jump start emergency intake sites – are all signs of an administration that’s been caught off guard by the sheer number of migrants arriving at the border.
‘We knew that this was going to be a challenge’
There were warning signs this would happen. Last summer, the number of migrant encounters at the US-Mexico border began to rise, after having dropped when the pandemic gripped the western hemisphere. Behind the scenes, federal border officials began to warn about a projected increase in the coming months.
“When Covid hit, we saw a precipitous drop in the numbers. But we knew from the beginning that at some point those numbers would creep up,” former acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan told CNN, citing the worsening conditions in Latin America as a result of the pandemic and hurricane devastation.
Morgan said the Biden transition team was “specifically warned again and again and again,” adding that officials had worked on modeling to project the jump in encounters if Trump policies were pulled back.
Biden officials argue that the Trump team inhibited their ability to get a true grasp of the situation by not fully cooperating during the transition in the months after the election. That, according to one Biden official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, prevented the incoming administration from getting “under the hood in the time frame that other administrations would have been able to.”
This official also bristled at the notion they weren’t fully prepared. “Were we prepared? Yes,” the official said. “Everyone wants to be like ‘crisis, crisis, crisis, crisis’ – but it’s like, you know what, actually, things are going really well. Yes, we brought in FEMA, but you know what? That was the responsible thing to do.”
Not only was the transition truncated, but Biden officials argue they inherited an overall immigration and asylum system that had been deconstructed by Trump.
“As we were coming into the administration, we knew we were inheriting an absolute mess from the previous administration – that there were aspects of our legal immigration system that had been gutted and a department that lacked the personnel to administer our laws,” said Julie Chavez Rodriguez, the director of the White House’s office of intergovernmental affairs.
“When we came into office, like, it was a disaster. I mean, really. The staffing wasn’t in place, the structures weren’t in place,” said another administration official.
Critics say the White House hasn’t helped itself. During his first week in office, Biden signed a slew of executive actions aimed at undoing Trump’s immigration policies and released comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Most notable among the changes has been the decision to no longer expel unaccompanied minors who show up at the border, resulting in more children coming into US custody.
Those policy changes, some argue, sent a signal to migrants that it was the time to come to the United States, despite administration officials warning them it wasn’t.
“The gulf between what the Trump administration did in enforced cruelty and where the Biden administration wanted to be was so great that I don’t really think there was a clearer example that needed to be made in how the government and the administration was going to change,” one senior administration official said.
“The previous administration had so radically changed what we did on migration that, I think, the President felt very strongly that we had to act really quickly and really decisively to demonstrate that it wasn’t going to be the same,” the official added.
Mark Greenberg, a former Health and Human Services official who was involved in the Biden transition, noted the difficulties in projecting the scope of the influx. “It’s always hard to estimate how big the numbers would be, but it was always clear there would be a need for more capacity if the government was going to stop expelling children,” he said.
“Because of Covid, they had greatly reduced bed capacity. That capacity has not been enough for the increased number of children. It was foreseeable months ago that there was going to be a problem if bed capacity wasn’t going to be increased,” Greenberg added.
The Trump policies barring people from coming to the US also contributed to more people waiting in Mexico to come to the United States, argued John Sandweg, a former senior Homeland Security official under the Obama administration.
The Trump administration had pushed non-Mexican asylum seekers to Mexico until their court dates in the United States, leaving tens of thousands languishing in Mexico, and invoked a public health law during the coronavirus pandemic that allowed border officials to turn away migrants, including adults, families and unaccompanied children, encountered at the border. Biden moved to undo those, though he’s still leaning on the public health law to turn most adult migrants away.
“We’ve had a little over a year of (Migrant Protection Protocols), two years, and then Title 42 and that created a real anomaly in the sense that we had hundreds of thousands of people staged in Mexico ready to come, Central Americans,” Sandweg told CNN, citing another policy, known as the “remain in Mexico” program, which required migrants to wait in Mexico until their US court dates. “I think that’s playing a big role and artificially increasing the numbers.”
A source with knowledge of discussions during the transition said officials were aware the border would pose a challenge from the start. “We knew the Trump administration was turning away children. We knew there were camps in Matamoros (Mexico) because of ‘remain in Mexico.’ We knew that this was going to be a challenge immediately,” the source said.
“The transition was not in a position to open facilities because we weren’t the government. What we concentrated on was developing the policy that the new administration would be able to follow immediately,” the source added.
Tensions boil between lawmakers and the White House
Republicans have turned to immigration as their primary line of attack against Biden. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy led a Republican delegation to El Paso, Texas, this month and Sen. Ted Cruz is planning to head up a Senate GOP trip.
“The sad part about all this, it didn’t have to happen. This crisis is created by the presidential policies of this new administration. There’s no other way to claim it than a Biden border crisis,” McCarthy said at a news conference.
Democrats have responded by charging that the outgoing Trump administration is responsible for creating the conditions that led to the border problems, by refusing to give the Biden administration a proper transition and with policies that led to migrants waiting in dangerous conditions in camps near the border.
“There’s a rush because people are so desperate,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat. “It was one of those things where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. What the Trump administration was doing was in many ways cruel forcing these people to wait in very dangerous situations on the other side of the border.”
“They’re just screaming about this to change the subject,” one administration official said of Republican criticism. “It’s used to distract and divide the American public and distract from the issue at hand. President Biden – 60% approval, huge approval – what do they do? They go to the border.”
Democrats have expressed anger toward the Biden administration over the failure to move children out of border facilities quickly enough, calling the situation unacceptable. One House Democrat involved in immigration issues said it’s been a “messy process” as the Biden administration has ramped up capacity to address the surge in unaccompanied minors.
There’s been particular frustration over the lack of shelter space to house the additional children, including the fact that the HHS facilities were being used at less-than-full capacity because of Covid restrictions.
“I’m not defending having a child in a Border Patrol station for more than three days – that’s not what the law requires and it’s not appropriate,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat. “Jamming kids in a Border Patrol station, that’s not Covid protocol – so you might as well get them out of there into some of the facilities.”
But Democrats charge that Republicans are trying to exploit the situation for political gain, scaring voters and ignoring the fact that the migration increases are cyclical and happened in the Trump administration, too.
“McCarthy goes down there – I never heard him once express concern about a 12-year-old girl being sent back on their own to some camp in Mexico,” Lofgren said.
On Thursday, the House passed two immigration bills – one to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers” and another to provide legal status for farm workers – though they are expected to hit a wall in the Senate. The bills are a sign of the tough slog ahead for Congress to address immigration reform and the problems at the border.
“The reason why I find it so irritating to debate whether we should say there’s a crisis on the border or not is because saying that takes our focus off the broader picture,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from a Texas border district.
“If we don’t address the root causes now, and if we don’t change the system now, we will continue having this conversation every single year. And nothing will change. And things will get worse.”
Geneva Sands contributed to this report.