On Thursday afternoon, President Biden faced the press for the first formal press conference with the White House press corps since taking office two months ago, covering everything from the covid-19 vaccination roll out to the Senate filibuster. But immigration dominated the presser and Biden’s answers yielded limited insight into his approach with undocumented immigrants.
Biden kicked off the presser by boasting of the United States covid-19 vaccination effort, announcing that 100 million doses of the various vaccines have been administered since he took office. So he’s upped the ante: a pledge to administer 200 million doses of the vaccine by April 30, his 100th day in office.
“I know it’s ambitious, twice our original goal, but no other country in the world has even come close to what we’re doing,” Biden said. “I believe we can do it.”
After touching on covid-19, Biden began the question portion of the event. No one was interested in talking about the pandemic. Immigration was the hot topic, namely the so-called crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. While much of the media’s coverage of the border has been sensationalized, there are also legitimate concerns about reported overcrowding at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas, where unaccompanied immigrant minors are held and inconsistencies in the Biden administration’s approach to dealing with these migrants, which persisted throughout the press conference.
PBS White House reporter Yamiche Alcindor said that Biden’s message to undocumented immigrants “not to come” to the United States is [falling on deaf ears], noting that Biden’s reputation as a “moral” and “decent” man is contributing to the influx of minors arriving at the border. “I guess I should be flattered people are coming because I’m the nice guy,” Biden joked.
According to Biden, his administration has seen a 28 percent influx in child migrants arriving at the border; there was a 31 percent increase in 2019 during the Trump administration, pre-covid. He added that undocumented immigration is seasonal, with the winter months seeing a spike in attempted border crossings and asylum seeking due to more agreeable weather. The covid-19 pandemic also likely caused a delay in migration for many who would have otherwise attempted to enter the United States in 2020.
What has changed, however, is the vast number of unaccompanied minors who are seeking asylum, and Biden still has a wishy washy way of addressing it.
“The overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back,” Biden insisted. “Thousands, tens of thousands of people who are over 18 years of age and single people, one at a time coming, have been sent back. We’re sending back the vast majority of the families who are coming... they’re not getting across the border.”
This isn’t a response that’s bound to please immigration activists in the Democratic Party, but instead sounded like it was made to calm down reactionaries. He continued: “We’re providing for the space, again, to be able to get these kids out of the border patrol facilities... We’re building back up the capacity that should have been maintained and built upon that Trump dismantled. It’s going to take time.”
ABC’s Cecelia Vega mentioned that she met a 9-year-old who walked to Hondorus with another child. She called his mother, and she said that she sent her son to the United States because she believes Biden isn’t deporting unaccompanied minors.
“The idea that I’m going to say, which I would never do, that an unaccompanied child ends up at the border we’re just going to let him starve to death and stay on the other side... no previous administration did that either, except Trump,” Biden said. “I’m not going to do it.” But when asked whether a child in this situation should be deported, he said, “In this young man’s case, he has a mom at home, there’s an overwhelming reason why he should be put on a plan and flown back to his mom.”
There’s no easy answer as to what should be done for a child thrown into this scenario, but Biden’s solution—to simply send the child back to the same environment that he was, moments earlier, describing as hot spots for violence and poverty—falls flat. It’s nice that Biden wants to help a starving child sitting along the Rio Grande, but chucking the child back where they came from after the fact is a bleak proposition.
The United States cannot deport someone who is seeking asylum without having their application adjudicated, whether by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services or in immigration court. But in 2020, the Trump administration pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to sign off on authorization to deny any and all undocumented entry into the United States—asylum or otherwise—due to covid-19 safety concerns. While the validity of this measure is being duked out in the courts, the Biden administration hasn’t made any clear move to put an end to this policy and is using it to turn people away at the border.
Biden grew somewhat testy in his responses regarding migrant children in CBP custody. When Vega asked if he found the overcrowded conditions in the Donna facility “acceptable,” Biden replied, “That’s a serious question, right? Is it acceptable to me? Come on.”
Overall, Biden was aggressively competent and gaffe-free in answering questions outside of immigration and his potential re-election campaign: He admitted that a May 1 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would be difficult, touched on “holding China accountable,” and remained pliable about the filibuster, but stressed an interest in revising the Senate filibuster’s rules as opposed to ending the 60-vote threshold entirely.
“We’re ready to get a lot done,” Biden said. “And if we have to, if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about.”
But an exchange with CNN’s Collin’s on the matter also fell a bit flat:
Collins: Regarding the filibuster, at John Lewis’ funeral President Barack Obama said he believed the filibuster was a relic of the Jim Crow era. Do you agree?
Collins: Why not abolish it if it’s a relic of the Jim Crow era?
Biden: ...Successful electorate politics is the art of possible. Let’s figure out how we can get this done and move in the direction of significantly changing the abuse of even the filibuster rule first. It’s been abused from the time it came into being by an extreme way in the last 20 years. Let’s deal with the abuse first.
Most surprising was the topic that was hardly covered: Gun violence and mass shootings. In the last two weeks, there have been two high profile mass shootings in the United States; one in Atlanta, Georgia, another in Boulder, Colorado. But the White House press corps barely touched the subject. When the subject did, eventually, arise from one lone reporter, Biden immediately pivoted to the importance of infrastructure spending.
Infrastructure spending is important, and Biden going on about the importance of children being able to go to asbestos-free schools with clean water, the value of having improved roads, bridges, and airports, and the job building potential in technological innovation. But Biden failed to connect that to mass shootings.
“Successful presidents have been successful in large part because they know how to time what they’re doing,” Biden said.
Fair enough, but I’m left wondering about the timing of this press conference. Biden has been criticized for the lack of press conferences in his term thus far, holding this first one later than his 15 predecessors who each faced the press within their first 33 days in office. Frankly, I’m not sure if it was worth the wait.