WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden moved to help children fleeing violence in Central America on Wednesday even as he grappled with a surge of migrants at the U.S. southern border that is taxing resources and exposing him to bipartisan criticism.
White House border coordinator Roberta Jacobson told reporters the Biden administration is restarting the Central American Minors (CAM) program for children, which between 2014 and 2017 allowed children fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to apply in their home countries to settle in the United States.
Then-President Donald Trump ended the program in 2017. It had allowed children under 21 years old with parents lawfully living in the United States to apply for a refugee resettlement interview as a way to avoid making the dangerous journey by themselves to the United States.
The move was the latest step taken by Biden as he tries to create a more humane situation along the border with Mexico.
Mixed messaging by the Biden White House, however, is leading to criticism from Republicans that he is encouraging migrants to make the dangerous journey to try to reach sanctuary in the United States.
“The Biden border crisis is real and is only going to get worse,” Representative Kevin Brady of Texas said at a news conference held by House Republicans on Wednesday.
At the same time, Democrats complain that Biden is not moving fast enough to release children from Border Patrol custody.
U.S. officials are urging people not to try to cross the border, warning they will be sent back. Biden has not reversed a Trump-era public health rule that allows border agents to quickly expel most border crossers but is not applying the policy to unaccompanied minors.
“The border is not open,” said Jacobson, switching to Spanish on a number of occasions during a White House briefing to stress the point. The phrase was repeated in a call with reporters on Wednesday by Troy Miller, the senior official performing duties as the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
But that message is not sinking in.
Miller said agents on the U.S.-Mexico border encountered 100,441 migrants attempting to enter the country illegally in February, confirming the highest monthly total since a major border surge in mid-2019.
Miller said more than 19,000 of those encounters were families, close to 9,500 were unaccompanied minors and the remainder adults. Border officials said they also count repeat crossers in their numbers.
Jacobson blamed migrant smugglers for the surge.
“We are trying to send both messages, and smugglers are trying to send only one message,” she said.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said members of Biden’s immigration team briefed him on a border visit they had and that they discussed how to speed up the processing of migrant children.
A State Department representative said in a statement Wednesday that the administration is set to resume processing CAM applications, starting with children whose cases were suspended under Trump and then opening up to new applicants.
The department plans to reach out to parents starting as soon as March 15, the representative said. To date, the program has reunified almost 5,000 children with their parents.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Steve Holland, Mimi Dwyer and Jarrett Renshaw; Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Jonathan Oatis)