Faced with President Joe Biden's early popularity, good news about vaccinations, and Americans' embrace of the COVID relief bill Washington Republicans opposed, the GOP is leaning in on the highly charged issue amid a spike in border crossings. They hope immigration can unite the party heading into next year's elections, when control of Congress is at stake.
“Heading into the midterms, I think that Republicans are increasingly realizing that this can be one of the most potent issues, both to motivate our voters, but equally as important, to appeal to" swing voters — especially in suburban swing districts — who voted for Democrats in 2020, said former Trump aide Stephen Miller, the architect of his immigration policies. He said the issue has been a subject of discussion in his recent conversations with lawmakers as child border crossings have surged, straining US facilities.
The situation at the Southern border is complex. Since Biden's inauguration, the country has seen a dramatic spike in the number of people encountered by border officials, with 18,945 family members and 9,297 unaccompanied children encountered in February — an increase of 168 per cent and 63 per cent from the month before, according to the Pew Research Center. That creates an enormous logistical challenge, since children, in particular, require higher standards of care and coordination across agencies.
Still, the encounters of both unaccompanied minors and families remain lower than at various points during the Trump administration, including in spring 2019. That May, authorities encountered more than 55,000 migrant children, including 11,500 unaccompanied minors, and around 84,500 migrants travelling in family units.
But that hasn't stopped Republicans from seizing on the issue, led by Trump himself. They blame Biden, who has been deeply critical of Trump's approach, for rolling back many of the former president's hardline deterrence policies. And they liken Biden's new, kinder tone to an invitation to would-be border crossers.
“They're destroying our country. People are coming in by the hundreds of thousands," warned Trump in an interview Tuesday night with Fox News Channel. “And, frankly, our country can't handle it. It is a crisis like we have rarely had and, certainly, we have never had on the border.”
“It's more than a crisis. This is a human heartbreak," said House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who led a delegation of a dozen fellow House Republicans to El Paso, Texas, on Monday.
“This crisis is created by the presidential policies of this new administration," he said.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a potential 2024 presidential candidate who is planning to lead his own Senate delegation tour to the Texas-Mexico border next Friday, accused the administration of having, “in effect, issued an invitation for unaccompanied children to come to this country."
Even Sen. Mitt Romney, one of Trump's most prominent Republican critics, faulted Biden's moves, including the halting of construction of Trump's signature border wall project.
“What's happening at our southern border is a real crisis, and the Administration is making it worse by unlawfully freezing border wall funding appropriated by Congress,” Romney tweeted after signing onto a letter with 39 other Republican senators criticizing the new approach to the border.
Democrats and immigration activists see it differently. They deride the policies Trump implemented to deter asylum as cruel and inhumane and an abdication of the country's humanitarian responsibilities. That includes the decision to forcibly separate more than 3,000 children from their parents, with no system in place to reunite them.
But policies like “Remain in Mexico," which forced asylum seekers to wait across the border as their cases were being adjudicated, and the expulsion of unaccompanied children were effective, and the number of migrants crossing the southern border declined precipitously, further slowed by the pandemic.
Beds were taken offline and staff downsized even as immigration experts on both sides of the aisle and career Homeland Security officials cautioned the numbers would likely begin to rise again once the pandemic subsided.
Advocates also note that apprehensions of single adults have been spiking since April 2020, long before Trump left office. And they accuse the last administration of enacting policies that clogged the immigration system — making it take longer to move people through the system — and failing to build capacity when numbers began rising.
Biden transition officials, for instance, urged the outgoing administration to increase capacity, but were met with inaction. Miller said career officials they'd chosen to work with the incoming administration warned numbers would rise exponentially if policies were reversed.