Nearly four months into President Biden’s term, as his administration settles into a new normal of sky-high border numbers, he and his top officials are looking to break with Trump’s measurement standards, at a time when immigration ranks as one of their worst-polling issues.
U.S. agents are making about 6,000 arrests and detentions along the Mexico border each day, a level of law enforcement intensity that has no recent precedent. Family groups and children needing care remain a major challenge for CBP, while growing numbers of adult migrants are trying to sneak past them and evade capture. Border state lawmakers from both parties fault the White House for doing too little.
Rather than attempting to drive down migration through more-stringent enforcement, Biden officials in recent weeks have been seeking to change the perception that high border numbers equate with a crisis, a failure, or even something manifestly negative.
“Apprehensions don’t tell the full story, and getting to zero is not a measure of success,” Tyler Moran, one of Biden’s top immigration policy advisers, said in an interview. She and other Biden officials have urged patience with their policies and plans to address the “root causes” driving Central American migration, while blaming the Trump administration for handing them an immigration system with a myopic focus on keeping border numbers low.
“We’re moving toward a fair, orderly and humane system,” Moran added. “We’re increasing and improving legal migration, and deterring irregular migration. We have put in place a number of policies creating legal pathways to migrate and seek protection, and we see that as a metric of success.”
The president’s Republican critics have seized on the border influx to hammer Biden and redirect attention from his better-rated handling of the pandemic and the economy. Biden officials steadfastly have refused to characterize the surge in crossings as a crisis, and in recent weeks, they have largely overcome the one thing that met that definition — the scenes of children and teens without parents jampacked into Border Patrol tents.
Six weeks ago, the administration had more than 5,700 unaccompanied minors in CBP facilities ill-suited for teens and children, but after the opening of 14 emergency shelter sites run by the Department of Health and Human Services, the number of minors in Border Patrol custody has dropped more than 90 percent.
The change has allowed Biden officials to pivot from a defensive posture to a more confident tone, even as critics point out that the government now has more than 20,000 migrant teens and children in shelters, many of which are unlicensed. The cost of caring for record numbers of minors this year is projected to reach at least $3 billion.
Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-
Calif.), the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee’s border security subcommittee, was among five congresswomen who praised the administration’s progress after she visited CBP’s tent facility in Donna, Tex., last week with DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The site’s holding pens were so stuffed in March that teens and children barely had room to lie down, but CBP photos released last week showed them nearly empty.
Barragán called the turnaround “a huge win,” adding she did not view high numbers of migrant teens and children crossing the border as something inherently negative.
“The alternative is to put them on the Mexican side and deliver them to the cartels,” Barragán said in an interview.
In March 2020, Trump issued an emergency order under the Title 42 public health code to rapidly return most unauthorized border-crossers to Mexico, sending unaccompanied minors to their home countries on repatriation flights. The Biden administration opted to exempt minors from the policy, allowing them to make humanitarian claims under U.S. law. Record numbers of teens and children have arrived this spring, the vast majority to reunite with parents or relatives already in the United States.
Last month 17,171 unaccompanied minors were taken into custody, the latest CBP figures show, down 9 percent from March’s record total of 18,890. In recent days, the number of teens and children arriving has dropped even lower, bringing more relief to the Biden administration, which has been urging Mexico to beef up enforcement along its border with Guatemala.
One border-state lawmaker whose criticisms have stung the administration, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), was not willing to join the chorus of praise from others in his party. He referred to the transfer of minors from CBP to HHS as a “shell game.”
“I’m a big supporter of Biden, but the numbers are still large, and just because we’re able to manage kids by moving them from one tent to another tent doesn’t mean the problem is under control,” Cuellar said in an interview.
“The GOP always wants to talk about the pull factors, and Democrats want to talk about push factors,” Cuellar added, referring to the array of forces that prompt people to head for the U.S. border, from desperation in Central America to changes in U.S. immigration enforcement that diminish the risk of deportation. “I think we need to address both.”
Under Trump, the release of CBP data became a monthly Washington ritual, often carefully coordinated with DHS and White House public relations officials to mitigate damage or claim policy success. But the enforcement statistics are not a comprehensive migration census. They offer a snapshot of changing enforcement activity, tallying the number of arrests and detentions made by Border Patrol agents and the CBP officers who staff ports of entry.
“The border statistics obscure more than they reveal — they don’t accurately capture the nature of different flows of people or whether the system is orderly and fair,” said Kerri Talbot, deputy director of Immigration Hub, an advocacy group influential with the administration. “Border management requires a deeper look at who is coming to the border and why, so that we can truly address the root causes of the migration and fairly and adequately deal with the impact at our border.”
What the CBP data does show, however, are changes in migration patterns among demographic categories — adults, family members and unaccompanied minors — as well as migrants’ nationalities and whether they are returned under Title 42.
“The monthly numbers are the best measure of what’s going on at the border,” said Paul Beeson, a retired Border Patrol official who was chief of the agency’s Tucson sector. “They show what’s happening month to month, what the level of activity is like and how many people are trying to sneak in.
“If you’re not going to measure that, what are you going to measure?” he said.
The monthly apprehension numbers plummeted last spring after Trump implemented the Title 42 expulsions, and when they began rising again, his administration also argued they were a deficient metric. Because most border-crossers were returned to Mexico under Title 42, they argued, rising apprehension numbers weren’t a problem.
The Biden administration has advanced a similar argument, noting that more than 62 percent of the 178,662 migrants taken into custody last month were promptly returned under Title 42.
When Mayorkas testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday, he said the effort to move minors into HHS shelters had produced “dramatic” results. Republicans bristled.
“I must admit I have found this hearing to be stunning,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), one of only six Republican senators who voted to confirm Mayorkas in February. “It seems, Mr. Secretary, you’re proud of the progress being made by the administration, that things are going well at the border.”
“I see an extraordinary crisis,” he said, flanked by poster-size charts with CBP enforcement numbers in towering red columns. “The question is: Do you have plans to do something dramatically different so those numbers come down to an acceptable level?”
“We are addressing the numbers consistent with the law,” Mayorkas said. “They have a claim under the law. We can, in fact, meet the challenge.”