Under growing political pressure over an increase in migrant children and crowding at the southern border, the Biden administration is betting big on nuance.
They don’t just want to push back on their critics, they want to change the very way Americans view migration.
President Joe Biden and his aides have stepped up their Hill outreach in recent weeks, racing to unite Democrats behind a new message on immigration policy and why the current situation is decades in the making. It won’t be easy. Democrats are aiming to explain away one of Washington’s most complicated and fraught issues, telling a far more complicated story than the simple one Republicans have hammered home on cable news.
In calls with House lawmakers this week, Biden administration officials repeatedly stressed that they inherited a disaster from the Trump administration, and said that the solutions would not be painless or quick. In a separate call with Democratic communications aides on the Hill, White House officials reiterated that the “real crisis is in Central America,” according to several people on the call. Biden and his team are emphasizing the “root causes” of migration surges, and their renewed diplomatic efforts with Central American countries, which lapsed under the Trump administration.
The White House has held calls with outside groups and staff for high-profile Democrats off the Hill to coordinate messaging, as well, with the goal being to make sure that all stakeholders are rowing in the same direction.
That coordination, along with the acknowledgment of the scope of the situation, has been welcomed by many Democrats. After joining House Democrats in a private virtual meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) scribbled “hallelujah” on a sheet of paper alongside his other notes.
“Because they were saying, ‘look, this is not the problem of HHS or DHS but that every federal agency was now going to be involved’ in this project,” said Cleaver. “It was important to hear that the administration does not believe that it has already reached Nirvana. We’ve got a long and persistent problem on our Southern border.”
The revised approach from the administration is a tacit acknowledgment that their initial posture — in which they downplayed the problem and steadfastly refused to call it a crisis —wasn’t working, at least politically. But when it comes to actually fixing the conditions forcing migrants to flee their home countries, the White House has its work cut out for it.
For the president, it’s not as simple as picking up from where he left off during the Obama administration, when he ran point on diplomatic efforts with the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. It also entails overhauling an immigration system dramatically changed by Trump and adding capacity to deal with a surge of migrants at the border — many of whom are being immediately expelled.
The number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border hit a monthly-high in March, exceeding the last record-high in May of 2019. In total, some 170,000 people were apprehended by border patrol last month. About 100,000 of those migrants were single adults, who have been routinely removed from the U.S. by the Biden administration under a Trump-era public health authority.
Despite the problems, there is virtually zero prospect for immigration reform in a Congress with such narrow margins. Biden’s comprehensive immigration plan is stuck in the House, where it still lacks votes for passage within his own party, according to multiple Democratic sources. Senate Republicans — who were at the table to discuss reform in 2013 — are instead taking trips to the border to weaponize the issue ahead of next November’s midterms.
Some border Democrats say they appreciate Biden’s efforts to address the long-term root causes of the migrant surge. But they argue that the administration needs a plan to address the immediate influx of migrants now, too.
“We already know what the root causes are. We can send researchers down there but we know the answers already,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), one of the few Democrats who has publicly voiced concerns with Biden’s handling of the issue. “The question is how do you address this issue? Private investment is going to be key. Foreign aid and private investment takes time. It’s not going to be done today, tomorrow.”
The taxed immigration system remains one of Biden’s biggest challenges in the early months of his presidency. The president enjoys relatively high marks on issues such as the pandemic and the economy. But just 34 percent of Americans said they approved of the president’s handling of immigration, according to an NPR/Marist poll conducted late last month.
Some immigrant rights advocates say it’s partially because Biden and his administration were slower to coalesce behind a clear strategy in the early weeks of his term, with much of the focus being placed on the coronavirus pandemic and the aid package to help solve it.
“The White House needed to be, or should have been, more proactive, framing and telling the story three weeks before they really started to do it,” said Lorella Praeli, executive director of Community Change Action, a progressive grassroots group. “If you don’t define the narrative, you give your opponents the power to do so.”
There’s also simmering Democratic and activist frustration with Biden’s continued use of the Trump-era authority — known as Title 42 — to expel the majority of people encountered at the border. Publicly and privately, the White House has told reporters and Hill staff that they have no timeline to stop using the authority.
In recent weeks, the administration has tried to show quick action by sending delegations to the border. They’ve increasingly coordinated with Democrats in border districts, too, after some of those members initially said that they were left out.
Last week, Biden installed Vice President Kamala Harris as the new coordinator with the Northern Triangle and Mexico, and on Thursday, reversed a Trump-era policy that enabled immigration services to reject applications for asylum if any space was left blank. Conservatives claim the reversal of Trump’s policies and Biden’s language are creating the situation at the border, but immigration experts say few migrants make the dangerous journey based solely on who is in the White House.
The administration also ended Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy, which forced migrants to wait out their claims on the Mexican side of the border in tent camps, and reinstated the Central American Minors program allowing children to file asylum claims from their home countries. Still, DHS Secretary Mayorkas has said the U.S. is on pace to encounter more people at the border than it has in the “last 20 years.”
As Biden confronts an increase in migrants fleeing violence, poverty, and devastation from hurricanes, he and his officials have stressed to Democrats and the public the cyclical nature of migration surges, which also occurred during the Obama and Trump years.
As vice president, some of Biden’s most high-profile visits to Central America at the time coincided with spikes in young unaccompanied migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and he stepped into the role of spokeperson for the administration.
In the spring of 2014, when migrant crossings were making headlines, Biden stopped in Guatemala. He told reporters that the situation at the border was “untenable and unsustainable.” But even then, Biden spoke about the problem as a matter of humanity, sharing that he “can’t imagine the desperation” that leads a family to send their child into the arms of criminal traffickers on the dangerous journey
Years prior, when Biden traveled to Central America for the first time as vice president, he sought to change the way the U.S. had approached the relationship, aides and officials recalled. Obama and Biden prioritized deepening partnerships with the governments along with getting more money into depressed parts of the region.
The process to free up funding took time. But by mid-2015, Congress dedicated more than $1 billion to the Northern Triangle for a two-year period. Obama and Biden set in motion a more concentrated effort encouraging people fleeing violence, particularly children, to seek asylum abroad rather than try to cross into the U.S. from Mexico.
There was some progress. Studies found that there were sharp drop-offs in the number of U.S. border apprehensions of migrants coming from 50 of El Salvador’s municipalities between 2014 and 2018, said Mark Schneider, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former head of Latin America and the Caribbean at USAID. Across the same municipalities, homicides decreased by 40 percent over about a three-year period.
But despite the relative successes in El Salvador, Schneider said, the number of migrants coming to the U.S. from Guatemala and Honduras did grow.
“Did it solve the problem? No, obviously, it didn’t,” said Francisco González, a Mexico scholar and professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “Did they allocate enough resources? No, it was nowhere near enough. And did then-Vice President Biden end up knowing more about the U.S. southern border and Central America? The answer is, yes, he did.”
“He came in with this portfolio. He did what he could. But it’s a speck in an ocean.”
Fast forward to Biden’s turn in the Oval Office and he’s again pressing Congress to send aid to Central America and Mexico. His administration is also racing to expand capacity to humanely house a growing number of child migrants in emergency intake sites — like stadiums, church facilities and summer camps — rather than keep them in tightly-packed border patrol facilities.
Facing calls to allow media access to the facilities, the administration allowed only a small number of reporters to enter one of the border patrol facilities this week. Overwhelmed government agencies are also releasing some migrants at the border without any paperwork.
“We can’t just deal with the symptoms,” said Cleaver, the House Democrat. “That’s all that we’ve been dealing with for the last two, maybe three decades, are the symptoms. That won’t work anymore.”