Biden team to visit Mexico border amid criticism on migrants

Migrants crowd a temporary processing center in Donna, Texas
Migrants crowd a temporary processing center in Donna, Texas Jaime RODRIGUEZ Sr. US Customs and Border Protection/AFP
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Washington (AFP)

US President Joe Biden's administration on Wednesday sent a team to the Mexican border and acknowledged a "huge problem" as an influx of migrant children provides an opening to critics.

The White House said administration officials were accompanying lawmakers on a visit to the Carrizo Springs center in Texas, one of a number of facilities struggling to cope with a rise in migrant children.

Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledged that the United States needed to speed up its processing of migrants' asylum claims and care for them better as thousands flee rampant violence in impoverished Central America.

"It's a huge problem. I'm not going to pretend it's not," Harris said in an interview on CBS News.

But she said that the administration, in office for less than 100 days, needed to repair a structure torn apart by former president Donald Trump, who rose to power on an aggressive anti-immigration agenda.

"We have to reconstruct it. It's not going to happen overnight," Harris said of the immigration system.

"The reality is also, in addition to the border, we also need to deal with the root causes," she said, vowing efforts to help the so-called Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua so its people do not feel they need to flee.

The Washington Post, in an analysis looking at data, said there in fact has been no "surge" of migrants entering the United States, with recent numbers in line with seasonal norms before the Covid-19 pandemic.

But more of the migrants are children, officials say, and the border influx has unified Republicans and provided a line of attack against Biden, who in his first weeks has succeeded in his promises to ramp up Covid vaccinations and to push through an economic package that offers relief to most Americans.

- Partial shift from Trump -

Republicans accuse Biden of encouraging migration through a more welcoming approach than Trump, who in his final year essentially closed the border to all undocumented migrants by citing a public health emergency from Covid-19.

Top House Republican Kevin McCarthy has spoken of a "Biden border crisis" and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo tweeted that Biden "supports restrictions on pretty much everything except the border."

Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, in a joint letter with Senator Krysten Sinema, a centrist Democrat from the fellow border state of Arizona, asked Biden to take "aggressive steps to secure our border, protect our communities and ensure migrants are treated fairly and humanely."

Biden halted construction on Trump's cherished wall on the Mexican border and has moved to wind down a controversial Trump policy, which migrant advocates say violates international conventions, in which asylum seekers are forced to wait in Mexico while their cases are heard.

Biden has also faced concern from fellow Democrats who are alarmed at the conditions for children.

In one of Trump's most draconian actions which his aides saw as a deterrent, the United States separated thousands of Central American children from their parents.

While the Biden administration is still expelling adults who arrive without documentation, it has refused to send back into harm's way children who are unaccompanied by a guardian.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said the administration was setting up more temporary shelters for children, acknowledging the United States was falling short in its goal of transferring children out of custody of border guards within 72 hours.

Critics accuse Biden of replacing Trump's unapologetically harsh measures with an approach of hiding the treatment of migrants by restricting media access.

The White House said it was allowing one television network to pool images of Wednesday's border trip and would work to allow more access on the ground to journalists.

"The Biden administration is committed to transparency," a White House statement said, on the eve of Biden's maiden press conference as president.