U.S. President Joe Biden admitted Thursday that he cannot completely solve what he considered to be the long-existing border problem caused by the excessive influx of migrants, claiming that the situation is improving and that it can get “a lot better” soon.
“Truth of the matter is nothing has changed,” Biden said during his first press conference as president, where the border issue took center stage.
“It happens every single solitary year.” Biden’s remarks pushing back against the growing criticism of his administration’s handling of the skyrocketing migrant border-crossings came as U.S. media, citing official data that has not been publicly released, reported that the average daily number of unaccompanied migrant children detained by border officials has now topped 600, twice as many as in 2019, when the number peaked at around 370 on average a day.
Republicans and other critics have blamed the surging new arrivals on the Biden administration being more lax on immigration than the Donald Trump administration — claims Biden denied, saying economic reasons and seasonal factors were the main drivers that propelled migrants to make the U.S.-bound journeys.
“The reason they’re coming is that it’s the time they can travel with the least likelihood of dying on the way because of the heat in the desert, number one. Number two, they’re coming because of the circumstances in their country,” Biden said.
The president said the “vast majority” of migrant families coming to the U.S. border are being sent back by his administration, which in the meantime is also “moving rapidly to try to put in place” a migration processing system dismantled by the Trump administration, so as to better accommodate the unaccompanied migrant children who are currently packed in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities where the conditions Biden admitted are “totally unacceptable.”
The Biden administration has come under attack for not allowing journalists to independently visit the CBP facilities, including the one in Donna, Texas, where photos provided by Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar this week showed unaccompanied children jamming together without social distance, sleeping on mats under foil blankets, and divided into sections only by plastic sheathing. Cuellar said more than 400 male minors were being held in a section meant for 250.
Biden pledged during the press conference that he is committed to transparency and providing media access to facilities run by the CBP and other agencies. He didn’t give a timetable as to when that would happen.
There were nearly 5,000 unaccompanied migrant children detained in CBP facilities as of Tuesday, according to the latest data available. Hundreds of the kids have been in custody longer than what is legally allowed, with the average time hovering around 130 hours.
The CBP is supposed to transfer unaccompanied minors to the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours, but the HHS has been scrambling to find enough shelters, citing constraints related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden argued that progress is being made in finding additional housing facilities for the child migrants who are allowed to stay in the country as their immigration requests are processed. He said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin just informed him that some 5,000 beds at Fort Bliss Army post in El Paso, Texas, had been made available for sheltering the migrants.
“I can’t guarantee we are going to solve everything,” Biden said of the challenges his administration is facing on the border. “But I can guarantee we can make everything better. We can make it better. We can change the lives of so many people.”