Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on Thursday called for urgent action to resolve the “humanitarian crisis” along the border, and floated the idea of a 90-day moratorium on immigration as a way of sending a message that would discourage people from flooding the region trying to enter the United States illegally.
Manchin, who was one of the first major Democrat lawmakers to break ranks with his party and start referring to the border surge as a “crisis,” toured the U.S.-Mexico border with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) on Thursday.
The pair took a helicopter and boat tour of the border with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials, visited the port of entry in Laredo, Texas, and ended the day at the Holding Institute, a nonprofit housing families that have made their way illegally into the United States as part of the surge.
“Do we have a war zone, like some people call it? No, we don’t. Do we have a humanitarian crisis? Yes, we do,” Cuellar said of the situation in his home town of Laredo.
Manchin reinforced that characterization, telling reporters at the presser that, “we’ve got a human crisis that I’m seeing here.”
“Something has to be done and it has to be expedited,” Manchin said. “This problem is not going away. This problem will not cure itself, I can assure you, and they’re coming in droves,” he added.
CBP figures show that illegal crossings rose to over 100,000 in February, while the number of family units caught trying to enter illegally rose to over 19,000, nearly three times the January figure.
“I think, this month, we’ll probably hit around 130,000,” Cuellar said of his predictions for March. “So we’re heavy right now—I think we’re probably going to surpass what happened in May 2019 the way we’re going right now.”
The spike two years ago that Cuellar was referring to saw 144,116 enforcement encounters along the southwest border.
Separately, a Border Patrol official estimated that more than 1 million illegal immigrants are expected to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021 as the White House grapples with how to find facilities and process them.
“We’re already starting to see some higher days of 6,000-plus apprehensions,” Raul Ortiz, deputy chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, told reporters. “So I fully expect our border patrol agents to encounter over a million people this year.”
Republicans and others have blamed President Joe Biden’s immigration policies and messaging for fueling the border surge, particularly his reversal of key border security measures enacted by the Trump administration. While the Biden administration has sought to portray the spike in illegal crossings as a seasonal phenomenon, officials have, at the same time, rolled out more aggressive messaging in a bid to discourage would-be illegal immigrants.
“Don’t come over,” Biden said in a March 16 interview with ABC News when asked to articulate his message to would-be border crossers. “Don’t leave your town or city or community.”
Biden has also said that his administration is continuing to quickly expel most adults and families under a public health order imposed at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. But the administration is allowing teens and children, at least temporarily, to stay in the country.
Cuellar reinforced that message on Thursday, saying that, out of 100 people applying for asylum in the United States, “88 percent are going to be rejected.”
“Those are the numbers, only 12 percent,” he said.
Still, many would-be illegal immigrants believe that they are welcome to enter and stay in the United States, according to Reuters interviews with nearly two dozen migrants and more than a dozen people identifying themselves as smugglers.
“There’s 100 days of free passage across the border,” a Guatemalan smuggler told Reuters, referring to one prevailing perception. “Supposedly the president is letting children in,” another told the outlet.
Cuellar suggested the message that the border is not open is not getting through.
“In many ways, we’re giving false hope to people coming here,” he said.
Manchin tapped into that theme, saying that “we need to look at everything humanly possible” to stem the border surge, and raised the possibility of a temporary immigration moratorium, though he said he was “just throwing out different ideas.”
“We’ve got a human crisis that I’m seeing here … so if that means shutting everything down for 90 days of how we have people come into our country, sending that message that we’re not going to be taking people into this country until we get our ability to make sure we’re able to do it and do it right,” he said.
Other measures Manchin suggested include beefing up border security and a more robust U.S. immigration presence in Central American countries so as to process asylum claims there.
“They should be able to go through the asylum process—the vetting process—and do all the things that are necessary before they come here,” Manchin said. “It would be safer. It would be much more humane. It would be much more cost-effective for each one of them, and the sacrifices they make.”
Manchin also called for immigration reform, which he said he and Cuellar would discuss with members of the Biden administration upon returning to Washington.