WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's response to an influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border has been muted so far. But a tightening political squeeze may force him to act more aggressively soon.
Biden's Republican critics say that he's failing to handle a crisis and that his rhetoric and policies are actually encouraging migrants to travel to the U.S. from Central America. Democrats are more subtly urging him to ensure the humane treatment of undocumented children.
What both arguments highlight is the degree to which the two-month-old Biden administration was unprepared to handle a recurring political storm that has distracted and bedeviled presidents of both parties since the last major overhaul of immigration laws in 1986.
For now, immigrant rights advocates and fellow Democrats appear willing to give him some time to implement his own policies, because, they say, his approach is so different from former President Donald Trump's.
"Trump intentionally wanted to subject these migrants to hell, to hellish conditions," former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who was secretary of housing and urban development in the Obama administration, said in a telephone interview Monday. "Not only did he commit cruelty in all of our names, but his grand scheme didn't even work."
But there's no telling how long Biden's grace period will last if he can't get a handle on the surge, loosen Trump-era restrictions on legal immigration and make sure housing for detained children improves. Some Democrats want him to put himself in the center of the crisis.
"What I would like the Biden administration to do is really lean in, because the American people want this addressed once and for all," Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso on the Texas-Mexico border, said in a telephone interview Monday. "If we don't do it now, we can expect to have this same conversation every single year."
As they were for his predecessors, Biden's options are limited by the political reality of a Congress that is as divided as the public over immigration-related issues. And like those of many of his predecessors, his messages are mixed.
During the campaign last year, Biden's platform vowed to "restore our asylum laws so that they do what they should be designed to do — protect people fleeing persecution and who cannot return home safely."
But since he took office two months ago, he has kept a Trump administration policy, called Title 42, that expels the vast majority of undocumented adults under the auspices of combatting the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. Last week, he told ABC News that his message to asylum-seekers facing peril in Central America's "Northern Triangle" countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — is "don't come."
Republicans say Biden has invited the spike in undocumented immigrants at the southern border — which included a 60 percent increase in unaccompanied minors in February — by reversing Trump's hard-line approach to limiting immigration. Now, they say, the situation is a full-blown crisis, and they're using some of the same arguments Democrats deployed against Trump.
"This is an economic crisis, it's a revenue crisis, a jobs crisis, law enforcement crisis, a national security crisis," Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said in an interview Tuesday with Fox Business. "Above all else, it's a humanitarian crisis."
Even some Democrats are highlighting overcrowding at juvenile detention facilities.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, shared photos this week from inside a packed detention facility for boys that, minus metal fencing, depicted conditions not much different from conditions that led progressives to hammer Trump for keeping "kids in cages."
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden sees no crisis in the administration's struggle to quickly process the number of children coming into detention centers.
"Children presenting at our border, who are fleeing violence, who are fleeing prosecution, who are fleeing terrible situations, is not a crisis," Psaki said. "We feel that it is our responsibility to humanely approach this circumstance and make sure they are treated and put in conditions that are safe."
Immigrant rights advocates who spoke to NBC News say they are confident that Biden can deal with short-, mid- and long-range challenges at the border but that his policies may take awhile to implement.
They were pleased with the appointment of Alejandro Mayorkas, a former head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, as secretary of homeland security, and they say Biden's emphasis on working with Northern Triangle countries to reduce incentives for Central Americans to journey to the U.S. is the right approach for a long-term solution.
In the meantime, said Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, Biden is demonstrating a commitment to establish infrastructure to deal with the spike in migrant children.
"The intent of the Biden administration is to treat people with compassion," Noorani said.