U.S. President Joe Biden has a simple message for Central American migrants thinking about trying to get to the United States: Stay home.
"I can say quite clearly: Don't come over," Biden told ABC News in an interview Tuesday. "Don't leave your town or city or community."
The number of unaccompanied teens and children taken into U.S. custody along the U.S.-Mexico border surged in recent weeks to nearly 30,000 in February. The United States has been hard-pressed to provide enough beds to handle the influx and in turn find their relatives already living in the U.S. or people willing to care for them.
Biden, in office for nearly two months, has stopped construction of the border wall championed by former President Donald Trump and embraced what he has called more humane immigration policies.
Republican opponents of Biden say his stance amounts to an open border. The U.S. is still expelling adults and families trying to the cross the Mexican border into the United States while accommodating unaccompanied children.
ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos asked Biden, "Was it a mistake not to anticipate this surge?"
"First of all, there was a surge in the last two years," the president said. "In '19 and '20, there was a surge, as well."
The anchor observed, "This one might be worse," which Biden acknowledged.
"Well, it could be," he said. But Biden rejected the idea that the migrants are trying to enter the country because they perceive him as "a nice guy."
"We will have, I believe by next month," he said, "enough of those beds to take care of these children who have no place to go."
But he said the root causes of migration from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, along with Mexico, need to be addressed.
"It's not like someone's sitting in Guadalajara right now in Mexico — which is not the biggest problem right now — and saying, 'I got a great idea. Let's sell everything we have, give it to a coyote, give him our kids, take 'em across the border. Leave 'em in a desert where they don't speak the language. Won't that be fun?'"
He added: "That's not why people come. They come because their circumstance is so bad. Now, some come because they want a better opportunity, for economic reasons. They don't qualify (to enter the U.S.). And so, in the meantime, what we should be doing is making sure we provide beds for these children."
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas faces tough questions Wednesday from both Republicans and Democrats about the surge of migrants as he testifies at a House Homeland Security Committee meeting.
In a statement Tuesday, Mayorkas said the U.S. is on pace to record the highest number of migrants arriving at the southwestern border in the past 20 years,
"The situation at the southwest border is difficult," he said in a statement. "We will also not waver in our values and our principles as a nation. Our goal is a safe, legal, and orderly immigration system that is based on our bedrock priorities: to keep our borders secure, address the plight of children as the law requires, and enable families to be together."
"We are both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants," Mayorkas said. "That is one of our proudest traditions."
The number of migrants at the border is quickly becoming an early politically defining moment for Biden.
On Monday, Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, led a group of Republican lawmakers to the border at El Paso, Texas, and declared, "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."
Reforming U.S. immigration policies has long stymied lawmakers in Washington, with Democrats generally favoring fewer restrictions on migrants entering the country, while Republicans typically have adopted a harder line. Attempts to broker a comprehensive slate of reforms and policies have repeatedly failed in recent years.
Mayorkas said the number of migrants trying to reach the U.S. has been steadily increasing since last April.
"We are encountering six- and seven-year-old children, for example, arriving at our border without an adult," he said. "They are vulnerable children and we have ended the prior administration's practice of expelling them."
The DHS secretary said authorities are trying to reunite the children with family members already living in the United States or with other sponsors who have been vetted to care for them.
Initially after the apprehension of the children at the border, immigration officials by law are supposed to transfer them to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours, but Mayorkas said that because of the growing number of migrants, that deadline is "not always met."
Mayorkas said poverty, high levels of violence, and corruption in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries "have propelled migration to our southwest border for years," but that "adverse conditions have continued to deteriorate. Two damaging hurricanes that hit Honduras and swept through the region made the living conditions there even worse, causing more children and families to flee."
In addition, the Homeland Security chief claimed the Trump administration "completely dismantled the asylum system. The system was gutted, facilities were closed, and they cruelly expelled young children into the hands of traffickers. We have had to rebuild the entire system, including the policies and procedures required to administer the asylum laws that Congress passed long ago."
He said the Biden administration is building additional facilities in the southwestern states of Texas and Arizona to shelter unaccompanied children, while working with Mexico to expand its ability to house expelled families.
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security said that for the next 90 days, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would help process the large number of unaccompanied migrant children.
In Dallas, Texas, the city convention center will be used to house as many as 3,000 migrant boys, ages 15 to 17, for up to 90 days starting next week, with the U.S. providing food, security and medical care.
Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax said in a statement that "collective action is necessary, and we will do our best to support this humanitarian effort."
The Health and Human Services agency will also house youths in Midland, Texas, at a converted oilfield workers camp with help from the American Red Cross, which sent 60 volunteers.