Joe Biden on Tuesday had a message for migrants considering crossing into the United States: ‘Don’t come over.’
The president’s team is struggling to cope with a surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, in what is shaping up, along with the fight against COVID, to be one of the biggest challenges of his first 100 days.
His Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, said on Tuesday that the country was on track to see the highest number of arrivals across the southern border in 20 years.
Yet the White House still refuses to describe the situation as a crisis.
‘I can say quite clearly: Don’t come over,’ said Biden speaking to ABC‘s George Stephanopoulos in Darby, Pennsylvania.
‘Don’t leave your town or city or community.’
Biden denied that he should have anticipated the surge in migrants, as he sought to phase out Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies and embrace a more ‘humane’ approach.
‘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.’
Stephanopoulos noted: ‘This one might be worse.’
Biden acknowledged: ‘Well, it could be.’
He continued: ‘Here’s the deal: we are sending back people.’
Biden said he did not believe his rhetoric was driving the surge.
‘The idea that Joe Biden said: ‘Come’ – because I heard the other day that they’re coming because they know I’m a nice guy,’ Biden said.
‘Here’s the deal, they’re not.’
Earlier, asked on the White House lawn as he left for Pennsylvania whether he was planning a trip to the border, Biden said: ‘Not at the moment.’
On Monday, Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, visited the Mexican border with a delegation of fellow Republicans and insisted that Biden visit for himself.
‘I know the president’s going to travel this week. This is where he should bring Air Force One,’ McCarthy said in El Paso, Texas.
The number of migrants being stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border has been rising steadily since last April, and the Biden administration is still rapidly expelling most single adults and families under a public health order issued by Trump, Title 42, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But it is allowing teens and children to stay, at least temporarily, and they have been coming in ever larger numbers.
More than 4,000 migrant children were being held by the Border Patrol custody as of Sunday, including at least 3,000 in custody longer than the 72-hour limit set by a court order, a U.S. official told AP.
The agency took in an additional 561 on Monday, twice the recent average, according to a second official.
The number of children crossing by themselves, mostly from Central America, appears to be surging in particular in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. The Border Patrol took in 280 there alone on Monday.
The total of 561 unaccompanied minors from Monday offers a snapshot of how quickly conditions have changed along the border. That was up 60 per cent from the daily average in February, officials said.
In May 2019, during the last surge, the one-day peak was 370 teens and children.
It has put Biden in a difficult spot, blasted by Republicans for what they view as encouragement to illegal border crossers and by some Democrats over the the prolonged detention of minors.
It’s also a challenge to his effort to overhaul the broader Trump policies that sought to curtail both legal and illegal immigration.
Trump on Tuesday night told Fox News that the situation was ‘destroying our country’.
He said: ‘It is a crisis like we have rarely had and certainly we have never had on the border.
‘But it is going to get much worse. What we are seeing now is very bad – record numbers.
‘It is going to get much, much worse with a little bit of time, you will see those numbers expand at a level like you have never seen before.’
Trump said that he had seen reports of migrants arriving from Yemen and the Middle East.
‘They are coming in from everywhere,’ he said.
‘They are dropping them off and they are pouring into our country. It is a disgrace.
‘They are going to destroy our country if they don’t do something about it.’
Mayorkas admitted the a surge in the number of children is a challenge for the Border Patrol and other agencies amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But he rejected a Trump-era policy of sending them immediately back to Mexico or other countries.
‘They are vulnerable children and we have ended the prior administration’s practice of expelling them,’ Mayorkas said.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, Jim Inhofe, senator for Oklahoma, held up a photo of a small crowd of demonstrators in Tijuana, Mexico, wearing matching T-shirts with the words ‘Biden, Please Let us in’ that circulated widely on social media in recent days.
‘They’re all coming across the border, they’re coming fast, and they’re wearing Biden T-shirts,’ he said.