5,200 children being held in centres meant for adults at the border -- well above the peak under Trump
After two months of relatively smooth sailing, Joe Biden has landed in choppy waters: faced with a migrant rush on the border with Mexico, the Democratic president stands accused of failing to respond effectively -- and of lacking transparency with the media.
Questioned by Republican opponents, but also by some in his own party, Biden has launched into a difficult week that features, on Thursday, his first press conference since taking office.
The influx of thousands of migrants has provided an opening to his critics, who struggled to find an angle of attack as Biden successfully ramped up the coronavirus vaccination campaign -- and it has united the fractured Republican Party in the process.
They have accused the new president of creating the border chaos with a naive immigration stance.
"Despite your administration's refusal to admit this is a crisis, the American people are beginning to understand the gravity of the situation," said Republican Senator Ted Cruz, announcing he would visit the border this week with 14 of his colleagues.
Cruz accused the White House of "hiding the truth" by preventing journalists from visiting border facilities, particularly those holding children.
Two rival senators -- Republican John Cornyn and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, who represent border states Texas and Arizona, respectively -- also issued a joint letter urging Biden to step up his response.
Biden's predecessor Donald Trump chimed in, saying: "It's insane and it's nothing compared to what it's going to be over the coming months," fanning the flames on a topic that has long been a trigger for his political base.
So far, Biden has largely avoided the issue, but faced with reporters' questions at his press conference later this week, he knows he will have to address it head on.
Asked about it on Sunday evening after a weekend at Camp David, he remained evasive.
Does he intend to go to the border himself?
"At some point I will, yes," he said.
Doesn't he feel the need to see for himself what is going on there?
"I know what's going on in those facilities," he replied.
His last 10 tweets discuss masks, vaccinations, St Patrick's Day, the stimulus package, global warming and violence against Asian Americans... but not the situation on the border.
'The border is not open'
The crisis is thwarting the White House's plans to continue the "Help is Here" tour -- a victory lap promoting the merits of Biden's gigantic, massively popular $1.9 trillion economic stimulus plan adopted by Congress.
The only presidential trip of the week is scheduled for Tuesday -- Biden will travel to Ohio to highlight the positive impact of his aid initiative, dubbed the "American Rescue Plan," on the health sector.
At a time when lawmakers from both parties are visiting the border, and the first photos of unaccompanied migrant children, who are at the heart of the controversy, are being released -- the White House is struggling to explain how it ended up here and what comes next.
Biden has pledged to erase what he has called "a moral and national shame" inherited from Trump -- namely, the separation of thousands of migrant families, some of whom have still not been reunited.
But while children are no longer separated from their parents at the border, the arrival of large numbers of unaccompanied minors is a pressing issue.
"The border is not open. The majority of people are turned away," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday.
"With children, our focus is on expediting the processing at the border and ensuring they can get to shelter as quickly as possible."
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, under fire for his sometimes-confusing messaging, did not deny the number of 5,200 children being held in centres meant for adults at the border -- well above the peak under Trump.
More than 600 of them have also been there for more than 10 days, even though the law only allows them to transit for a maximum of three days.
A bipartisan group of US lawmakers visited immigration facilities in the El Paso, Texas area last week and several emerged with sharp criticism.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said he saw hundreds of children packed into a "big, open room," and "fought back tears" as he listened to a 13-year-old girl who was distraught after being separated from her grandmother.
In the Washington Post, photographer John Moore, author of a book on the border, said Trump's "zero tolerance" toward immigrants had turned into Biden-era "zero access" for journalists.
"The current administration took over with a pledge to make US immigration policy more humane and transparent. But it is falling short on the latter goal, which makes it hard to judge how it is doing on the former," he said.