In his first formal press conference Thursday, President Joe Biden promised forthcoming changes at the border while also justifying the number of people reaching the U.S. by noting seasonal spikes in migration and the deterrent tactics used by Trump administration.
The president also defended his own policies – including the decision to allow unaccompanied minors into the country – which have contributed to the perception that the U.S. is welcoming people at the border.
“I guess I should be flattered people are coming because I'm the nice guy,” he said.
The president said he did not regret quickly rolling back Trump administration restrictions on immigration, calling them harmful to “human dignity.”
“All the policies … were not helping at all, [they] did not slow up the amount of immigration. I make no apologies for that.”
The majority of migrants are still being turned back at the border under a pandemic-related health order put in place last year under President Trump.
Biden has kept the order, Title 42, except for unaccompanied children, which has overwhelmed border agents and other officials working to care for the kids. More than 16,000 were in government care as of Wednesday night.
“The idea that I'm going to say – which I would never do – that an unaccompanied child ends up at the border [and] we're just gonna let them starve to death and stand the other side,” President Biden said in his first press conference. “No previous administration’s done it either, except Trump. I'm not going to do it.”
Asked about the number of people crossing the border, which increased significantly in Biden’s first month, the president said much of it was due to seasonal changes that drive people to travel during the cooler winter months, noting the same pattern in 2019.
He also placed blame on the Trump administration’s denigration of the immigration system and its lack of preparation for an increase in numbers, especially capacity to care for children.
“We’re building back up the capacity that should have been maintained and built upon, that Trump dismantled. It’s going to take time,” the president said.
Nearly 5,000 children were in border facilities as of Wednesday night, and many have spent multiple days there, which is longer than the 72 hours allowed by law.
The president heartily agreed that detention centers were not a place for children.
“That's why I've been working from the moment this started to happen to try to find additional access for children … to be safely housed,” President Biden said. “That is totally unacceptable.”
In recent weeks, the Department of Health and Human Services has opened multiple overflow shelters to house children, and they plan to open more soon, including on military bases. More than 11,000 kids were in HHS care as of Wednesday night.
On Thursday, the president promised a change in border operations “very shortly,” and he committed to giving members of the media access to border facilities once those changes are in place.
“I will commit — when my plan, very shortly, is underway — to let you have access,” Biden said.
The president did not explain when those changes would happen, saying: “I don’t know, to be clear.”
President Biden also said Thursday that families should continue to be turned away at the border under the public health order established by President Trump last year. Thousands of families have been released into the U.S. in recent weeks since Mexico can’t accept all of them, especially those with young children.
“They should all be going back,” the president said.
It is legal for migrants, including families and adults, to claim asylum at the U.S. border if they have a credible fear.
But the pandemic order has turned most away, and amid an increasing number of people reaching the U.S., the Biden administration says it’s looking at other solutions, including setting up asylum processing within Central American countries.
On Thursday, the president promised a solution at the border “very shortly,” which he said will include an effort to get more kids out of border detention centers, though it’s unclear how the solution will go beyond adding shelter capacity. He also said that he told his immigration advisors to “focus on the most vulnerable immediately.”
In the meantime, his administration is working on changes to the asylum system to decrease the number who claim their fear at the U.S.-Mexico border itself, the president has said previously.
Long term, the administration is working with Central American countries — Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico — to address the root causes of migration.
“I can't guarantee you we're gonna solve everything,” President Biden said Thursday. “But I can guarantee we can make everything better. We can make it better.”