President Joe Biden said on Thursday he would not apologize for rolling back policies of his Republican predecessor that undermined "human dignity," while brushing off criticism that more migrants were making the journey to the U.S. border because they perceived him to be a "nice guy."
Speaking at his first White House news conference, Biden sought to defend his handling of rising migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Democratic president said the overall increase in border arrests was part of a seasonal trend that had also happened under former President Donald Trump, a Republican.
The number of migrants caught at the border has climbed in recent weeks, thrusting Biden into an emerging humanitarian and political crisis a little more than two months after he took office.
While he defended his reversal of some of Trump's immigration restrictions, he said he would keep in place a Trump-era policy that allows border agents to rapidly expel thousands of families - including asylum seekers to Mexico.
Biden said, however, that unaccompanied minors should not be subject to the expulsion policy.
"I make no apologies for ending programs that did not exist before Trump became president that have an incredibly negative impact on the law, international law, as well as on human dignity," he said.
The Biden administration has struggled to house a rising number of unaccompanied minors caught at the border. As of Tuesday, nearly 5,000 children were backed up in crowded border stations awaiting transfers to overwhelmed federal shelters.
Some Democrats have criticized the conditions and called for children to be released faster. Republicans say Biden encouraged more migrants to cross illegally when he rolled back Trump policies.
"It turns out when politicians spend a two-year campaign advertising a porous border and amnesty, people listen," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote in a tweet.
U.S. Border Patrol caught roughly 100,000 migrants at the border in February, the highest monthly level since a surge in mid-2019. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said last week that border crossings are on pace for the highest level in 20 years.
During the news conference, Biden said his government was in talks with Mexico to encourage them to take back more migrant families.
Mayorkas said earlier this month that the United States was working with Mexico to increase its capacity to receive expelled families, even as the policy has faced criticism from immigrant advocates.
While Biden said on Thursday that the "vast majority" of families are being sent back to Mexico under the Trump-era health order known as Title 42, U.S. government data suggests that is not the case.
More than half of the 19,000 family members caught at the border in February were not expelled, with many released into the United States to pursue immigration court cases.
Only 15% of family members caught on March 17 were expelled under the order, according to internal U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data shared with Reuters.