Latino members of President Joe Biden's Cabinet defended the administration's efforts on immigration and migration — particularly around the issue of unaccompanied minors — as they decried the impasse in Congress regarding any meaningful immigration reform.
At a panel discussion in New York City at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, a bipartisan Latino advocacy group, officials said the administration had made progress on moving migrant minors from adult detention immigration facilities.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra touted that the average time a migrant minor now spends under the custody of the Department of Homeland Security before being transferred to a licensed care facility under HHS is less than 24 hours.
Becerra was asked about the reports of unaccompanied minors in the U.S. working in factories, sometimes in dangerous situations. The administration has suffered backlash for failing to ensure children released into the country were protected from exploitation.
Echoing previous administration responses about the issue, Becerra said that once a migrant minor is placed with a sponsor, who is usually a family member, "we don't have the authority to bring that child back," because, unlike with foster care, Congress never gave HHS that kind of jurisdiction. "There is no net for this child" when it comes to that kind of exploitation, he said.
"I don't think anyone ever expected that it would take five or six years for any child to have an immigration case," Becerra said, referring to the bottleneck over pending asylum cases.
The administration was also asked about the deaths of several migrant children in government custody and about their care. Becerra answered that, without going into specifics, the children were going through medical and health issues.
"When it comes to these children, we treated them as children. We don't cage them," Becerra said.
"It’s important for people to recognize that as long as we have a broken immigration system, we’re going to have children crossing our border without an adult and putting them in dangerous circumstances," Becerra said. Congress has gone some three decades without passing sweeping immigration reform legislation.
The Trump administration took children from their parents at the border to prosecute their parents after they allegedly entered the country illegally. Thousands of children were separated, leading to a class-action lawsuit. The Biden administration still has in place a task force to reunite children with their parents or family. In a May report, the task force said it had reunited 705 children.
On border enforcement, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the administration has "instituted new lawful pathways, and we have seen and delivered consequences for those who do not avail themselves of it, and we've seen a 70% drop in number of encounters at our southern border."
The Biden administration recently announced a family reunification parole process to allow more eligible Colombian, Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran nationals with U.S. citizen or legal resident family members to join their families in the U.S.
Still, several states’ restrictive immigration policies have exacerbated the lack of progress around immigration reform and attempts to provide legal pathways for more noncitizens who are currently in the U.S.
Florida's recently signed immigration law imposes strict restrictions to deter the employment of undocumented workers, requiring businesses with more than 25 employees to use a government system known as E-Verify that checks an employee's or applicant's immigration or citizenship status. It has already led to some workers, mostly Latino, leaving the state.
The ramifications around these laws are in the context "of a completely broken immigration system," Mayorkas said.
If one only employs agricultural workers with legal immigration status, Mayorkas said, "I don’t know how we put food on the table."
Immigration is a key campaign issue, particularly among Republicans who are blaming the Biden administration for past spikes in the number of people arriving at the border.
Biden Cabinet member Isabella Casillas Guzman, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, said the SBA had expanded centers across the country from 1,200 to 1,600 to provide small-business guidance, including around workforce challenges.
When asked about the findings that millions in Covid relief funds were used fraudulently, Guzman said that 86% of the estimated fraudulent funds were disbursed under the Trump administration in 2020 because decisions were “made that sacrificed certainty for speed.”
Guzman said 1 out of every 6 small businesses is being started by a Latino and touted "record low" Latino unemployment. "Bidenomics is working," she said.
Around a year ahead of the presidential election, Guzman, Mayorkas and Becerra made a point of stressing the significance of Biden's diverse Cabinet; Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who was not present, is also Latino.
"We need to continue to have a Cabinet that looks like America," Becerra said. "The difference we make has a different flavor to it."