Biden Allies Predict Political Headache for President As Annual Migrant Surge Approaches

A yearly surge of migrant families and unaccompanied children as the weather warms has the potential to become a serious political headache for President Joe Biden, and presents a minefield he's trying to navigate before it's too late.

After being besieged from both sides on immigration, the Biden administration dispatched Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to the White House briefing room last week to deliver a message to migrants seeking a new life in the U.S.

"We are not saying don't come," Mayorkas explained. "We are saying don't come now, because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process for them as quickly as possible."

While his comments came as part of an overarching explanation that the Trump administration had decimated the immigration system, and patience was needed, they also spotlighted a worrying truth that shadows many conversations among Biden allies about the growing number of families and unaccompanied children seeking asylum at the border: That the yearly surge of border crossings expected in the spring which vexed Donald Trump in 2019, and were politically damaging for Barack Obama during the summer of 2014, as tens of thousands of kids came to the country, could hurt Biden.

As Republicans and conservative media outlets fan the flames of the situation at the border, where pandemic protocols on capacity at shelters and Biden's more welcoming approach have played a role in the current swelling of arrivals of families and children, Democrats acknowledge the White House needs to get the current situation in order before the weather warms or risk a worsening crisis this summer that could derail critical parts of Biden's agenda.

"You need to take care of the current situation before there's a surge in the coming months in order to keep the politics, especially in the Senate, out of the way in order to pass policy," Jose Parra, a former senior advisor to Harry Reid told Newsweek. He said legal avenues to apply for asylum from the home countries of migrants in the major immigration bill Biden introduced would ease the pressure at the border, but the bill could be hamstrung if a crisis gets out of control and becomes the priority in the coming months.

"They should move fast on legislation before there is a major crisis and the legislation falls victim to that," he said.

Obama faced such a crisis in 2014, when 68,541 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the border — a 77 percent increase from the previous year. The number of migrants abated considerably by fall, but in 2016, the administration passed $750 million in U.S. assistance to the Northern Triangle countries, led by then-vice president Biden who helped shepherd it through Congress.

A former Obama official who asked for anonymity to offer a candid assessment of the challenge facing Biden, said maintaining a sense of order will be a significant challenge for the president.

"Images of chaos at the border are the biggest enemy," the source said. "Where the politics can get complicated is if there are images that suggest things are out of control."

Biden moved swiftly to reject and rescind Trump's immigration vision, which included a February 2 executive order to identify the root causes of migration from Central America, and coordinate efforts based in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to combat corruption, counter and prevent gang violence, and generally improve those societies all in service of prioritizing "cooperative efforts to address migration flows."

Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars think tank, said Biden's team was "really concerned" about the possibility of the situation at the border spiraling very early in the administration and have been working on ways to combat it. The administration is focusing on addressing long-term drivers of migration but there is also a sense those kinds of changes will take time to develop and something immediate is needed at the border before things worsen, she said.

"One idea out there is to dramatically increase the number of judges and officials who can quickly process asylum claims, to speed the process to admit people who have a legitimate claim and turn away those who don't," she told Newsweek.

Biden faced criticism on the left and calls of hypocrisy on the right when the growing number of families and children at the border, coupled with pandemic protocols, forced the White House to reopen controversial Trump-era facilities for children. "The more humane the policy, the more the administration risks attracting further migration, so it's a really important balance to keep in mind," Arnson added.

Republicans have pounced on the administration's early missteps and growing pains, which includes 3,200 migrant children in Customs and Border Protection custody, with 2,600 awaiting placement in shelters suitable for kids, but only 500 beds available, CNN reported Tuesday.

In an emailed statement to reporters last week, Trump said the border is "now totally out of control" thanks to Biden's "disastrous leadership," along with a warning for the coming months. "There has never been a time on our southern border like what is happening now but more importantly, what is about to happen," he said.

In a letter to Biden on Friday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy requested a meeting to discuss the rising numbers of unaccompanied children at the border.

Daniel Garza, the executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, who was part of Trump's Hispanic task force, but also supports some pro-immigrant efforts like legalizing young immigrants brought to the country as children, said there is support for a flexible immigration system, but many people feel there is a loss of "order" at the border early in Biden's term.

"There is a magnet to America," he said. "You have to have these systems in place, know there is a sense of security at the border, and not a feeling that anyone who shows up will be let in and can game the system."

Traveling out of the airport in McAllen, Texas, Monday, Garza said he saw dozens of Central American nationals being processed to their final destination by immigration officials, complete with standard-issue footwear and paper bags containing their belongings. Many, he said, were single mothers with a child on their lap.

"We want a flexible, generous system for immigrants, but we also want control and order," he said. "When people don't feel that, that's when there's an urgency."

Advocates argue that as long as Biden can manage the flow of migrants now and in the coming weeks, "what we're seeing is not a crisis," said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, whose group works on bipartisan immigration efforts.

But pointing to Biden's interest in addressing the root causes of migration before the weather warms, Noorani said the U.S. needs to be working with Mexico to "dismantle and interrupt smuggling operations selling this dream to migrants in Central America."

Even if the spring surge of migrants never approaches the numbers Obama saw, Democrats and activists say Trump and others within the Republican Party are going to try to make it seem like it's 2015 all over again.

One White House ally waved away concerns that the right-wing echo chamber could derail Biden's handling of the situation at the border in the coming months and said the administration is ready to manage swelling numbers of arrivals despite a rocky beginning.

"Fox News is never going to be happy with anything this administration does," the source said, before turning to preparation for the coming increase of migrants at the border. "They have the team to do this, they have the policies in place, and they know the surge is coming."

migrant surge
A migrant woman at a bus station receives instructions before travelling to meet relatives or sponsors in Brownsville, Texas on March 2, 2021. - President Biden announced that he was ending the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) enacted under President Trump that sent asylum seekers back to Mexico as they awaited their trial dates. Sergio Flores/AFP/Getty Images