WASHINGTON - Thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the Mexican border into the United States have quickly reignited the contentious immigration debate in Washington, with Republicans and Democrats at odds over who is to blame.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy led a group of Republican lawmakers to the border Monday to condemn policies of Democratic President Joe Biden that McCarthy said have opened the border to unfettered illegal migration.
“The security of our nation and our border is first and foremost the responsibility of our president,” McCarthy told reporters in El Paso, Texas, at the border. “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.”
Upon taking office in January, Biden stopped construction of the border wall championed by former President Donald Trump and has advanced what he says are more humanitarian immigration policies.
But Biden has kept in place some of Trump’s policies, including the ability to expel adult immigrants and families, citing public health pandemic rules.
The Biden administration has stopped short of calling the influx of migrants, including nearly 30,000 unaccompanied children that arrived from Central America between October and the end of February, a crisis, preferring to call it a challenge.
But Biden and his aides have been hard-pressed to keep thousands of impoverished Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran migrants from making the dangerous trek through Mexico to what they believe will be a safer, more prosperous life in the United States.
FEMA to help
Over the weekend, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said that for the next 90 days, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would help process the large number of unaccompanied migrant children.
“Our goal is to ensure that unaccompanied children are transferred to Health and Human Services (HHS) as quickly as possible, consistent with legal requirements and in the best interest of the children,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.
The children are being kept in makeshift facilities at the border — already at 94% capacity — before they can be sent to relatives living in the U.S. or to vetted families willing to take care of or adopt them.
In Dallas, the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center will be used to house as many as 3,000 migrant boys, ages 15-17, for up to 90 days starting next week, according to a memo obtained Monday by the Associated Press. HHS and FEMA will provide food, security, cleaning and medical care, the memo said.
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.”
HHS will also house youths in Midland, Texas, at a converted oil field workers camp with help from the humanitarian organization American Red Cross, which sent 60 volunteers.
On Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters “the Biden administration is trying to fix the broken system that was left to them by the Trump administration. The Biden administration will have a system based on doing the best possible job, understanding this is a humanitarian crisis.”
Trump weighed in with his immigration thoughts at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, contending that Biden “wants it all to go to hell.”
“When I left office just six weeks ago, we had created the most secure border in U.S. history,” Trump claimed, ignoring the increased number of illegal crossings during his last months in office.
“It took the new administration only a few weeks to turn this unprecedented accomplishment into a self-inflicted humanitarian and national security disaster by recklessly eliminating our border, security measures, controls, all of the things that we put into place,” Trump argued.
McCarthy asks for meeting
In early March, McCarthy asked Biden for a meeting on immigration at the border, saying he felt “compelled to express great concern with the manner in which your administration is approaching this crisis, but with hope that we can work together to solve it.”
McCarthy said he had not heard back from the president.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki rejected Republicans’ contention that the new administration had adopted an “open border” policy.
“That is absolutely incorrect,” she said last week. “The border is not open.”
Roberta Jacobson, White House coordinator for the southern border, acknowledged last week that the surge in migrants may have been fueled by the belief that it would be easier to get into the United States under Biden.
“I certainly think that the idea of a more humane policy would be in place, may have driven people to make that decision,” she told reporters. “But perhaps more importantly, it definitely drove smugglers to express disinformation about what is now possible.”
Lawmakers in Washington have been stalemated for years over immigration policies. Aside from dealing with the current quandary at the border, House Democrats this week are trying to advance two pieces of immigration legislation.
One would establish a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and have lived, attended school and worked in the country since then.
The House is also considering a measure in which a migrant worker in the agricultural industry could earn temporary status to stay in the U.S. with an eventual option to become a permanent resident.
Democrats strongly support both bills and also passed them in 2019. Even if they are approved again, however, their fate in the politically divided Senate is uncertain, at best.