But immigration is a much thornier challenge for Democrats now that Biden is in the White House. This time Republicans can aim barbs at a president whose embrace of comprehensive immigration reform legislation appears to be at least partly the cause of the migration surge, as asylum seekers look for refuge from a friendlier U.S. government.
“We’ve seen that Biden’s policies created a border crisis,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Thursday alongside dozens of House Republicans. “On the very first day of his administration, there wasn’t a plan to open up American business or American schools, President Biden announced it was his priority to offer ‘citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.’ What did he think would happen?”
In public statements and private meetings, the GOP has embraced immigration as a common theme this week. McCarthy announced Thursday that he will lead a GOP delegation to the border next week to assess the situation firsthand. The conservative Republican Study Committee has also circulated talking points encouraging members to hammer Biden over the “ongoing humanitarian disaster” and tie it to the president’s immigration policies, calling it a “special messaging gift.”
Democrats dismiss the GOP’s messaging as a distraction, noting that Trump and Republicans in Congress did little to confront border emergencies during their years in power. The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of separating families at the border created a humanitarian calamity that became one of the biggest black marks of his presidency.
“Well, I guess, their Dr. Seuss approach didn’t work for them,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday, referring to the culture wars that Republicans have recently resurrected. “So now they have to change the subject.”
But Biden’s party is taking the issue seriously behind the scenes, working to address a deeply complicated issue that poses risks both political — since their own party skewered Trump on immigration for years — and personal, to the thousands of migrant teens and children who have been housed at U.S.-run shelters.
The number of migrant children detained at the border has tripled in recent weeks, with children reportedly held for longer than three days on average and being detained in facilities meant for adults. Critics blame Biden’s immigration policies for overwhelming the system and say the president should have more forcefully discouraged people from Central American countries from traveling north.
A few Democrats are sounding their own alarms about Biden’s handling of the influx, though their criticism of the administration is so far more muted than the GOP’s. That includes Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who represents a district encompassing a huge slice of the U.S.-Mexico border and has reached out to the Biden administration to help address the issue.
“The messaging has to change,” Cuellar said of the Biden team’s response so far, noting that officials have simply asked people to delay their trips to the U.S. border, rather than warning of potential consequences.
“The messaging is very, very important. They should learn from what happened in 2014,” Cuellar added. “I think, because of the pandemic, it’s going to be a humanitarian crisis very, very soon.”
One key difference from the Trump era, Democrats say, is that Biden has pledged a far more humane approach toward migrants, particularly those under the age of 18. Biden has already rolled back several of his predecessor’s policies, including the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy that advocates say gutted the nation’s asylum system. And Biden has reinstated the Central American Minors Program, which allows children to apply for asylum while remaining in their home countries rather than undertake a dangerous journey to the border.
“It’s clear to me that the Biden administration will address the issue at the border with compassion, as opposed to the cruelty that was central to the prior administration’s policy,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said in a brief interview Thursday.
A group of top Democrats has been working closely with the Biden administration on their response at the border, including committee leaders and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
That includes a CHC meeting Thursday morning on the issue with the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Cindy Huang, and a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services, JooYeun Chang. During the meeting, the administration officials said they are working to expand capacity to house the children and are coordinating with local youth organizations and foster programs.
Democrats say they will continue seeking accountability for the government’s treatment of migrant children, regardless of which president is in charge. At least for now, many are prepared to give Biden time to tackle the issue, given that he’s only been in office eight weeks.
On Thursday, when asked about whether the migration rush should be considered a “crisis,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said “we don’t see the need to put new labels.”
“It doesn’t matter what you call it. It is an enormous challenge,” Psaki said. “The president is very focused and very in the weeds on the operational details here and on pushing his team to take every step that can be taken to address … the fact that these border patrol facilities are not made for children.”
Meanwhile, some Democrats are making their own plans to visit detention centers where migrants are being held. Cuellar has planned a bipartisan trip with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to visit one of the same facilities that Biden administration officials recently toured. And Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) is planning his own trip in the next few weeks for his Democratic colleagues, as Axios first reported.
“Republican politicians are fear-mongering and scapegoating children and families seeking asylum to distract from their lack of any governing agenda to help the American people,” Castro said in a statement. “This is a deep humanitarian situation that demands a dignified response, not dangerous rhetoric.”
Roberta Jacobson, Biden’s coordinator for the southern border, acknowledged on Wednesday that the administration sometimes has struggled to convey an ultimately promising message to migrants while also urging them not to travel to the U.S. until the country’s immigration system is better equipped.
Administration officials have also maintained that their response at the southern border has been complicated by Trump’s effective dismantling of cross-border immigration systems, the administration’s refusal to turn migrants away, and the coronavirus that has consumed Biden as his top priority.
The pandemic adds its own wrinkle to the current state of immigration politics. Migrants are tested for Covid before entering the U.S. and supposed to isolate if they receive a positive diagnosis. But Republicans have seized on reports that some migrants who tested positive for coronavirus were released into Texas.
“There are super-spreader caravans coming across,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said at Thursday’s news conference. “This was all done by President Biden, and President Biden can address and reverse this policy.”
A White House spokesperson countered that during their visit to the border, Republicans will see “the cruelty, chaos and confusion pushed by the prior administration.”
“We hope once these Republican members return, they come to the table ready to work with the White House and Democrats in Congress to bring our immigration system into the 21st century,” said the spokesperson.
Quint Forgey contributed to this report.