President Biden downplayed the severity of the border surge Thursday, saying it “happens every year,” and suggested things seem worse now because the Trump administration left him with a broken system unable to deal with the problem.
Even as he announced a crash effort to place children in beds at military bases to ease horrific conditions at Border Patrol facilities, he said most of them aren’t young children who tug at the heartstrings, but rather are 16 and 17 years old.
Mr. Biden also suggested one solution might be deportations of some of the younger children, a prospect that is unlikely to sit well with immigration advocates.
Speaking at his first press conference as president, Mr. Biden was peppered with questions about what most analysts argue is a migrant crisis, as families and children stream toward the U.S. from Central America.
“The truth of the matter is nothing has changed,” the president said. Of the surge, he said, “It happens every year.”
Yet he also seemed to acknowledge that this year’s surge is unusual as he ticked off the steps he is taking to deal with the situation.
That included the 5,000 beds he said will soon be available at Fort Bliss, creating space to get the children off floors and benches, where more than 5,000 are sleeping in plexiglass cells at the border.
A PBS reporter suggested that the migrants are coming because of the perception of Mr. Biden “as a moral and decent man,” whom parents are “entrusting” by sending their children north unaccompanied.
“I guess I should be flattered people are coming because I’m the nice guy,” the president responded. He then shot down the theory by pointing to increases under President Trump.
“Does anybody suggest there was a 31% increase under Trump because he was a nice guy and he was doing good things at the border? That’s not the reason they’re coming,” he said.
Mr. Biden said the solution to illegal immigration lies in bolstering Central America so people don’t leave their home countries.
In the near term, he said, the U.S. is still blocking most illegal immigrants at the border and 70% of the children admitted are 16 and 17 years old.
“The idea that we have tens of thousands of kids in these god-awful facilities that are, really, little babies crying all night — and there’s some, that’s true,” he said. “That’s why we got to act.”
Minutes after Mr. Biden concluded his press conference, the Department of Homeland Security revealed that a 9-year-old Mexican migrant had died after being stranded in the Rio Grande on Saturday near Eagle Pass, Texas. Border Patrol agents did manage to rescue and revive a Guatemalan woman and her 3-year-old child, who were also stranded.
Farther east along the river, several large groups of unaccompanied alien children, or UACs, as the government labels them, were nabbed by Border Patrol agents on Wednesday and Thursday. All told, 70 UACs were taken into custody in the actions.
UAC arrests in southern Texas have more than doubled since the same time last year, the Border Patrol said.
An ABC reporter confronted Mr. Biden with the story of a 9-year-old migrant boy who walked from Honduras without any parent and whose mother, when the network contacted her, said she sent the child because she expected Mr. Biden to let him in.
“Astounding,” Mr. Biden said, though he doubted the woman’s reason. He said the mother was really motivated by desperate circumstances in her country.
“There’s no easy answer,” he said.
But he suggested he would support deportation of the boy because of the mother’s presence back home.
“In this young man’s case, he has a mom at home. There’s an overwhelming reason why he’d be put in a plane and flown back to his mom,” the president said.
Mr. Biden’s insistence that migration surges early in each year does not exactly match the numbers.
Indeed, in 2017, the first year of Mr. Trump’s presidency, arrests plummeted more than 40% because of the new administration’s tougher stance.
Over the past decade, the average increase from January to February was about 14%. Mr. Biden, though, has overseen a 28% increase in Border Patrol arrests.
Those overall numbers also don’t reveal the real surges of children and families.
The nearly 9,300 unaccompanied juveniles nabbed by Border Patrol agents last month is by far the highest February on record, and it represented a 63% increase over January. Over the previous 10 years, the usual increase from January to February was just 9%.
“This is not seasonal — the responsibility lies squarely with the president’s poor planning and policies,” The Heritage Foundation said in a fact check written in part by Mr. Trump’s border team, including former acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, former acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli and former acting border chief Mark Morgan.
“Make no mistake, his remarks are making the crisis worse, not better,” the Heritage experts said.
March is in fact looking worse, with juveniles coming into border facilities faster than the government can transfer them out.
On Wednesday, Customs and Border Protection brought in 681 more unaccompanied children, and transferred just 437 out. That left CBP with more than 5,100 children in custody as of Wednesday. Meanwhile, 11,900 children were in shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services.