They had no idea what was going to happen.
Many of the most criticized Trump-era immigration policies were overturned by the Biden administration within weeks of Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, including deporting children seeking asylum who arrived alone at the US-Mexico border and requiring migrants to wait in Mexico while making their case to remain in the US.
Although the administration was working on immigration reform to fix long-term concerns, there was no plan in place to cope with a sudden influx of migrants. After the presidential election and the news that Trump’s policies, which were generally perceived as barbaric, were being reversed, career immigration officials expected a surge.
Officials are now struggling to build up resources to care for the 14,000 migrants now in federal custody — and more on the way — and the administration is reeling from criticism that it should have been better prepared to cope with a predictable situation.
“They should have forecasted for space (for young migrants) sooner,” said Ronald Vitiello, a former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and chief of Border Patrol under Republican and Democratic administrations. “And, in retrospect, I believe they should have waited until they had more shelter space before changing the policies.”
The situation on the Mexican side of the border is complicated.
The number of people met by border officials has risen significantly since Biden’s inauguration. According to the Pew Research Center, there were 18,945 family members and 9,297 unaccompanied children encountered in February, up 168 percent and 63 percent from the previous month. Since children, in particular, need higher levels of treatment and collaboration across organizations, this poses a significant logistical challenge.
Nonetheless, the number of interactions between unaccompanied minors and families is smaller than it was at different points during Trump’s presidency, including in spring 2019. In May of that year, authorities encountered over 55,000 migrant children, including 11,500 unaccompanied minors and 84,500 family units.
Overwhelmed by previous spikes, career immigration officials have long cautioned that the influx of migrants to the border could increase again.
Migrant children are moved from border processing centers to other government facilities until they are given a sponsor. A Trump administration program of “enhanced screening,” in which details were submitted to immigration authorities and some sponsors were arrested, causing some to fear picking up children for fear of being deported, delayed the process significantly. As a result of Biden’s decision, immigration officials are optimistic that the process will now move more quickly.
Officials in the Biden administration have consistently blamed the previous administration for the current situation, claiming that Biden inherited a mess as a result of President Donald Trump’s undermining and deterioration of the immigration system.
Biden’s decision to deploy the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is renowned for supporting communities in the wake of natural disasters, to help efforts to process the increasing number of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the border has also been cited by the White House.
Biden and others have disputed the idea that the current situation is a “crisis.”
When asked if his administration should have expected the spike in young unaccompanied migrants, families, and adults, Biden said in a recent ABC News interview, “I believe we will have enough of those beds by next month to take care of these children who have no place to go.” “Let’s get something straight, though,” he said. The vast majority of people who cross the border are deported… automatically deported.”
Republicans’ insistence on a “crisis” at the border, according to Adam Isacson of the human rights advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, is overblown, but the rise in migrants was predictable.
Hurricanes that struck Central America last fall; the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic; normal seasonal migration patterns; thousands of Central American migrants already stranded at the border for months; and the ongoing epidemic of gang violence afflicting the Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — he called it a perfect storm of causes.
After declaring in early February that it will avoid deporting unaccompanied minors, Isacson claims the Biden administration was “two to three weeks” late in planning for the rise in unaccompanied minors and the ensuing housing shortage.
However, Isacson added that the bottleneck was compounded by the Trump administration’s lack of cooperation with the Biden change.
On February 2, the Biden administration declared that it will no longer support the Trump administration’s policy of deporting unaccompanied minors seeking asylum automatically. Two weeks later, the White House announced that 25,000 asylum seekers who had been forced to live in Mexico would be admitted to the United States.
The number of young migrants crossing without parents increased significantly in the following weeks. Customs and Border Protection, as well as officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, have struggled to accommodate the influx of children. Adult migrants and families attempting to enter the United States illegally have also increased, according to immigration officials.
According to administration agents, border patrol officials have met more than 29,000 unaccompanied juveniles since Oct. 1, almost the same number of teenagers taken into custody over the entire previous budget year.
“It’s crucial to increase capacity to deal with unaccompanied minors, but the statistics don’t point to a crisis,” Isacson said.
That hasn’t stopped Republicans from bashing Biden, including Trump and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
“This isn’t just a crisis. McCarthy, who led a delegation of a dozen House Republicans to El Paso, Texas, on Monday, described the situation as “human heartbreak.”
Republicans are also criticizing Biden’s administration for sending mixed signals.
Critics also seized on public statements by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who said earlier this month that the administration’s message to migrants was “don’t come now,” as well as a mistake by Roberta Jacobson, the White House’s lead border advisor, who said in Spanish during a recent briefing that the “border is not closed,” before correcting herself.
In recent days, the president and other administration officials have intensified their attempts to convince migrants not to come. Embassies throughout the Northern Triangle are broadcasting public service announcements emphasizing the risks of traveling north.
Biden’s team, according to Eric Hershberg, director of American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, is up against a strong counter-narrative as it seeks to convince desperate Central Americans to remain put: social media chatter from migrants who have successfully crossed the border and smugglers who insist that now is the best time to cross.
According to Hershberg, a Honduran friend’s reaction to US warnings that migrants could face danger on the journey was as follows: “You know, you don’t have to go through all of this confusion. You should either sit here and be sure you’ll be raped or murdered.”