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Editorial: The Biden administration — and Xavier Becerra — must deal better with migrant children

Xavier Becerra testifies during a hearing on his nomination
Xavier Becerra testifies during a Feb. 24 Senate Finance Committee hearing on his nomination to be secretary of Health and Human Services.
(Greg Nash / Associated Press)

There is no doubt that President Biden inherited a bureaucratic and humanitarian nightmare at the U.S.-Mexico border. And there is little doubt that how his young administration handles this crisis — and it is a crisis, even if White House image managers balk at calling it so — will help define his presidency, if for no other reason than his Republican critics will make sure it does.

Xavier Becerra, former California congressman and attorney general and current secretary of Health and Human Services, is right in the middle of it, though you’d hardly realize it given his low public profile since taking the job a month ago. His agency is responsible for caring for unaccompanied minors taken into custody by Border Patrol agents and placing them with relatives or caregivers.

The knives may already be out for the new HHS chief. Critics complain that unaccompanied minors, whose ranks are growing fast, are spending too long in federal custody and not being connected quickly enough by HHS to relatives or sponsors in the United States. The Washington Post reported last week that HHS had more than 20,000 minors in its care, and an additional 2,200 were in detention centers waiting to be moved to the agency’s shelters.

Politico recently wrote one of those inside-the-Beltway pieces about how White House staffers “have grown increasingly frustrated” with Becerra “over his department’s sluggish effort to house thousands of unaccompanied minors” and “complaints he’s been slow to take charge of the response since his confirmation on March 18.”

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Really. After a month. And his tenure began nearly two months into the Biden presidency, which means the White House has had more time than Becerra to come up with workable solutions. Yet some now seem ready to set up Becerra as the fall guy if the problem worsens and the politics get uglier. We’re no apologists for Becerra — although we supported his nomination, we criticized some of his work as attorney general — but we at least are generous enough to give him time to figure out the job before pinning failures on him.

In truth, the Biden administration so far seems to be reacting to events at the border rather than coming up with the kinds of broad and creative responses the problem needs. Again, it’s early, but the issues posed by unaccompanied minors are not new, and even if the Trump administration didn’t cooperate significantly in the transition, this is not Biden’s first border rodeo. His team should have made crafting border responses a higher priority — especially given the harsh politicization of border policies.

It’s especially concerning that Biden has continued one of the Trump administration’s more cynical practices. President Trump invoked the rarely used Title 42 powers, which allow the quarantine of foreign travelers suspected of carrying infections, to bar entry by people from countries with high rates of COVID-19, despite murky legal authority to do so (yes, there are legal challenges).

The move also contradicted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which determined that the quarantine was unnecessary to protect public health. Biden has suspended Title 42 for unaccompanied children (two-thirds of whom are boys between the ages of 15 and 17) but is still using it to block most families and adult migrants, thousands of whom have been stranded in dangerous squalor just over the border.

Few expected Biden to take the oath and immediately resolve the many problems in the U.S. immigration system. The damage over four years of Trump’s wrecking ball was substantial, and some migrants have told journalists that they were emboldened by a change in administrations from one perceived as cruel to one perceived as accommodating.

But in truth most would have come anyway, fleeing home territories controlled by gangs largely outside the reach of corrupt governments, beset by climate-change-fed droughts and, most recently, damaged by two devastating hurricanes. People flee for valid reasons and in most cases arrive at the U.S. border hoping to join relatives already here. Biden has asked Vice President Kamala Harris to steer diplomatic efforts to try to address those “push” factors, a daunting but necessary task that also risks making Harris the face of whatever failure might ensue.

Responsibility for border and immigration enforcement falls on an alphabet soup of departments mostly under the Department of Homeland Security. But the children wind up in Becerra’s care. HHS needs to get better and faster at processing the arrivals and connecting them with relatives or otherwise finding them homes to live in as their legal requests to remain in the U.S. are processed. At the moment, the nation doesn’t have much of a sense that the new boss is doing much better at this than the old boss.


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