Joe Biden called it a crisis and worse.
“When children travel hundreds of miles to reach the United States without their families, in the hands of criminals in the 21st century,” he said of unaccompanied minors surging across the nation’s southern border, “that’s a tragedy we all must take responsibility for.”
And, to clarify but not offend, he took care to explain who should take responsibility for that tragedy: “the country from which they come, and the country to which they are headed.”
He was the vice president then -- June of 2014 -- as he undertook a tour of Central and South America. There was no pandemic at the time. Unlike today, Biden also spoke at length about the illegal immigration challenge. Now, as president, he remains relatively mum, even as the Border Patrol detains a record number of kids and overall detentions in February soared to nearly 100,000 — the most in that month since 2006.
Is there a crisis at the southern border? That’s the question RealClearPolitics put to Biden last week as he walked out of the State Dining Room at the White House. “No,” he replied. “We will be able to handle it, God willing.”
The new president is not the only one who won’t call it a crisis. That same day and subsequently, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly described the situation as a challenge. “We’re going to approach this without labeling,” she said. “We’re going to approach this with policy, with humanity and with a focus on what we can do to keep these kids safe.”
In policy and rhetoric, the new administration has adopted a more compassionate approach than the previous one, relying less on deterrence. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas summed up that perspective recently, telling reporters at the White House that “loving parents” were sending their children to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We are not apprehending a 9-year-old child who’s come alone, who has traversed Mexico, whose parents — whose loving parents — had sent that child alone; we are not expelling that 9-year-old child to Mexico when that child’s origin, country of origin, was Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador.”
Biden also talked about parents six years ago. But at a press conference in the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, he said those parents were being “reckless.”
The children who would leave their homes in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, Biden told reporters at the time, were “among the most vulnerable.” He said the Obama administration estimated that up to 80% “rely on very dangerous, not-nice, human smuggling networks that transport them through Central America and Mexico to the United States. These smugglers — and everyone should know it, and not turn a blind eye to it — these smugglers routinely engage in physical and sexual abuse, and extortion of these innocent, young women.”
Placing children in their care, the vice president said, “is a reckless and dangerous undertaking for any parent to do.” Despite the warning, many didn’t listen. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended would swell to more than 68,000 by the end of 2014.
More than 3,200 migrant children are now in Border Patrol facilities, CBS News reported Monday, as the administration struggles to prevent that number from growing out of control. Another 7,000 unaccompanied children, meanwhile, were transferred to the custody of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement in the month of February alone.
Sensitive to criticism that they are putting “kids in cages” as they reopen detention facilities that operated during President Trump’s tenure, the administration has sought new ways to house migrant children. Reuters reports that the Pentagon is considering a military base in Virginia.
The White House has insisted that the majority of migrants will be turned away. The message has been muddled, however. “We are not saying don’t come,” Mayorkas said of those with asylum claims. “We are saying don’t come now.”
Asked to clarify that statement, Psaki blamed the last occupant of the White House. “When we say, ‘It’s not the time to come now,’” she told reporters, “the reason is, we are still digging our way out of a dismantled, immoral and ineffective immigration policy that was being implemented by the last administration that was largely based around funding for a border wall.”
It will take time, she added, to modernize the immigration system, an effort that includes “creating a pathway to citizenship.”
Finding a way to similarly accommodate those who entered the United States illegally was also the stated goal of the Obama administration. But Biden was nonetheless more pointed in his messaging six years ago. The Department of Justice and DHS were streamlining removal proceedings, he said at that Guatemala press conference. “Those who are pondering risking their lives to reach the United States should be aware of what awaits them,” Biden told reporters. “It will not be open arms. It will not be ‘Come on.’ It will be, ‘We’re going to hold hearings with our judges consistent with international law and American law, and we’re going to send the vast majority of you back.’”