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Biden Administration Struggles to Find Coherent Message on US-Mexico Border, Critics Say


FILE - Asylum-seeking migrant families cast shadows on a wall as they form a queue to be processed by the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States from Mexico in Roma, Texas, Aug. 12, 2021.

The Biden administration has struggled to deliver a coherent message about the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, critics contend.

The president and his advisers have offered sometimes contradictory assessments of the seriousness of a surge of migrants overwhelming border officials and have sent mixed messages to the migrants themselves about what will happen if they reach the United States.

People who generally support the administration's approach to migration issues are frustrated by its failure to clearly articulate what is happening and how the administration is responding.

"Overall, I'd say the administration has really struggled to explain exactly what's happening at the border, and really put some of the numbers into perspective for the American people," said Danilo Zak, a senior policy and advocacy associate with the National Immigration Forum, an immigration reform advocacy group.

Asylum-seeking migrant families arrive at the U.S. side of the bank on inflatable rafts after crossing the Rio Grande into the U.S. from Mexico in Roma, Texas, Aug. 12, 2021.
Asylum-seeking migrant families arrive at the U.S. side of the bank on inflatable rafts after crossing the Rio Grande into the U.S. from Mexico in Roma, Texas, Aug. 12, 2021.

"It's been a real struggle for the administration to message effectively, and that's caused a lot of problems for other aspects of their immigration agenda," Zak told VOA.

Opponents of President Joe Biden's immigration policies quickly stepped into the gap, painting the situation along the southern border as a scene of unmitigated chaos and "catastrophe" that will boost crime and drug smuggling while endangering public health.

Mixed messaging

The administration's public statements on the border situation have been mixed at best. Earlier this year, officials staunchly refused to call it a "crisis" until Biden himself used the term in April, forcing the White House to backpedal.

In a trip to Central America in early June, Vice President Kamala Harris delivered a stark message during a press conference in Guatemala, telling potential migrants, "Do not come."

FILE - U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks during a press conference at the Sofitel Mexico City Reforma hotel in Mexico City, June 8, 2021.
FILE - U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks during a press conference at the Sofitel Mexico City Reforma hotel in Mexico City, June 8, 2021.

But that message has been diluted by other statements from the administration.

In March, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told potential migrants, especially children, that they ought to wait to make the journey north to the U.S. border for at least several months, while the administration expands its capacity to adjudicate claims of asylum.

But at the same time, he said the administration knows that "out of desperation" some children might not defer the trip north.

'We will care for that young child'

"I hope they don't undertake that perilous journey, but if they do, we will not expel that young child," Mayorkas said. "We will care for that young child and unite that young child with a responsible parent. That is who we are as a nation, and we can do it."

FILE - Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, March 1, 2021.
FILE - Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, March 1, 2021.

Critics said Mayorkas' statement and similar comments from the president himself amount to an invitation to young Central Americans to make the dangerous journey north.

In another example of muddled messaging, the administration released a blueprint in late July for creating what it calls a "fair, orderly and humane" immigration system. But on the same day, it announced that that the Department of Homeland Security would expand its use of "expedited removal" authority, which allows rapid deportation of certain immigrants with no court hearing.

Instead of receiving positive comments from allies about its broader plan, the administration was slammed by immigration advocates.

Allen Orr, the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, called expedited removals "a terrible practice that undermines due process and fairness." He added, "AILA appreciates the administration's other efforts to improve humanitarian protection, but this move is a far cry from the humane and fair policy he pledged."

Pandemic rhetoric

A particularly tricky area for the administration has been the combination of migratory issues with the ongoing spread of COVID-19, especially in Texas. The administration's political opponents, particularly Republican governors of states in which the pandemic is raging out of control, have blamed undocumented immigrants for the recent resurgence of the virus.

There is little actual evidence to suggest that is true. Undocumented immigrants detained at the border are all tested for the coronavirus, subjected to strict quarantine requirements, and in some cases vaccinated against the disease.

FILE - Asylum-seeking migrants walk to a temporary shelter run by a local charity organization after undergoing tests for COVID-19 in McAllen, Texas, April 8, 2021.
FILE - Asylum-seeking migrants walk to a temporary shelter run by a local charity organization after undergoing tests for COVID-19 in McAllen, Texas, April 8, 2021.

But the administration has made it difficult to push back against the claims that immigrants are driving infection rates by opting in some cases to continue using a public health measure known as Title 42 to immediately expel migrants, on the ground that they might be carriers of the infection.

Expelling migrants under Title 42 was initiated by the Trump administration in March 2020, and was widely criticized by Democrats as a blatant misuse of public health laws to achieve a goal — expelling migrants without granting them asylum hearings — that the Trump administration was having trouble achieving by other means.

The Biden administration has retained the policy but exempted unaccompanied minors and some families with young children.

Order in chaos

While some see chaos, others perceive a hidden agenda in the administration's messaging.

"It may seem like chaos, but I think chaos is a feature, not a bug, of this plan," said James M. Roberts, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of a recent paper on the Biden administration's efforts to address the root causes of immigration from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

"So they deliberately open the border, and have kept it open, and then to distract from that reality, they have asked people to focus on these root causes in the Northern Triangle countries with the source of many of them ... in an effort to generate sympathy for these people that they're letting into the country," Roberts said.

Big numbers

Whichever side of the question one is on, the numbers coming from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are certainly remarkable.

In July alone the administration estimates it apprehended approximately 210,000 people, the largest number in two decades. That total includes 19,000 unaccompanied children. The estimates for July bring the total apprehensions at the border in fiscal 2021 to over 1,329,000 — more than 114,000 of those unaccompanied children — with two months left in the fiscal year.

FILE - Asylum-seeking migrants from Central America are processed by the U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States from Mexico, in Penitas, Texas, July 8, 2021.
FILE - Asylum-seeking migrants from Central America are processed by the U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States from Mexico, in Penitas, Texas, July 8, 2021.

U.S. authorities note that some apprehensions are of repeat border crossers, making the actual number of migrants harder to calculate. Even so, perceptions of out-of-control migration have become widespread.

Republicans in Washington have gone so far as to introduce legislation calling for the impeachment of Mayorkas, who oversees CBP.

"This is a catastrophe of gigantic proportions on our southern border where we had a secure border seven months ago and now it's a train wreck down there," Georgia Republican Representative Jody Hice said in an appearance on Fox News Wednesday.

"We are having records [numbers] of people coming across. We have COVID. We have violent criminals, gangsters, terrorists, and the American people are footing the bill on all of this. It's time now for heads to roll."

In fact, CBP numbers show that, after dropping for much of fiscal 2020, border apprehensions were on the rise in the final months of the Trump administration ahead of Biden's January inauguration.

A Washington story?

While political messaging is an obsession in Washington, the general public's perception of how an administration handles issues often varies.

It's not clear that the controversy in Washington has dramatically affected the way the general public feels about the administration's handling of immigration in general. In late March, after Biden had been in office for about two months, an Economist/YouGov poll found that 36% of respondents said they approved of how the president was handling immigration compared with 48% who disapproved.

When the same question was asked in a poll released July 28, the figures had moved only slightly, to 35% approval and 50% disapproval, a difference within the poll's margin of error.

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