WASHINGTON − Cruel. Unjust. Inhumane.
Those are the strong words White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre used to condemn Texas border control actions that include coils of lacerating wire placed at the American shoreline and reports of migrants being denied water in the extreme heat.
And on Monday, the Justice Department sued Texas over the governor’s refusal to remove a floating border barrier the Biden administration says was unlawfully put into place and “presents humanitarian concerns.”
But that’s not enough for some Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups who are still waiting for President Joe Biden to personally denounce Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s aggressive border tactics.
“These are actions that an American president, especially a Democrat ought to be able to condemn, without having to worry about the politics of it,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, told USA TODAY. “When he was running for office in 2020, President Biden pledged to restore moral standing in the world.”
Other events this week show why it’s perhaps not surprising Biden hasn’t been more vocal. A federal judge rejected his asylum policy, which many progressives have called too tough, while House Republicans renewed calls to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for not sufficiently controlling the border.
“Secretary Mayorkas, if you will not resign, that leaves us with no other option. You should be impeached,” Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., said Wednesday at a House Judiciary Committee hearing during which Republicans repeatedly accused Mayorkas of mismanagement and lax enforcement.
New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, the committee’s top Democrat, defended Mayorkas while expressing reservations about the administration’s immigration policies from the opposite perspective.
“They have not uncovered evidence of wrongdoing or malfeasance of any kind,” Nadler said of Republicans. “They have policy disagreements with the secretary, and so do we. But policy disagreements and personal grudges are not a basis for impeachment.”
Seth Stodder, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security for border, immigration and trade policy in the Obama administration, said Biden is caught between his progressive base thinking his border policies are too harsh and the Republican right denouncing them as too liberal.
Biden needs to keep the border under control so Republicans can’t use the issue against him in 2024 but he can’t disillusion his base in the process.
“It’s incredibly politically tricky,” he said.
In this case, Biden is deftly threading that needle, Stodder said, by having the Justice Department go after Texas without getting personally involved.
“I don’t think there’s any need for President Biden to up the temperature on an issue that is already pretty hot,” he said.
The temperature shot up after the recent publication of an email from a Texas state trooper alleging employees were told to push migrants “back into the water” of the Rio Grande when they reach the American side of the river as part of Abbott’s border security initiative.
The trooper, who is a medic and made it clear in the email to his superior that he supports the aims of the initiative, listed several incidents in the Del Rio area in late June and early July during which migrants were distressed.
Those events included injured children, a pregnant woman who miscarried and many others not given water or proper medical care despite intense heat.
Abbott has insisted he’s given no orders or directions “that would compromise the lives of those attempting to cross the border illegally.”
Former Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who unsuccessfully challenged Abbott’s reelection last year, called on Biden to “step up” his response to Abbott.
“I know that the politics on this aren’t easy,” O’Rourke wrote in an opinion piece published in the New York Times Tuesday. “And I can see why it might be tempting to allow the governor to assume ownership over the Texas border rather than pursue a public confrontation on an issue that is this politically charged. But if the president fails to enforce the federal government’s clear supremacy on matters of immigration, he will allow this challenge to grow as both a humanitarian crisis and as a political liability for his administration as he heads into 2024.”
Castro, who represents San Antonio, told USA TODAY he thought Jean-Pierre’s comments were strong. But that’s not the same as Biden, himself, speaking out.
Castro noted that Biden took time Thursday to address – with the mayors of San Antonio and Phoenix – the dangers of extreme heat that’s baking much of the nation. Biden touted steps he’s taking to help, including increasing enforcement to ensure outdoor workers have access to water breaks.
“I’m glad the president said something about it,” Castro said. “He should be able to say something about this as well.”
Pressed this week on why Biden, himself, hasn’t addressed what’s happening at the Texas border, Jean-Pierre pointed to Biden’s overall efforts to expand legal pathways for migrants combined with “humane” border enforcement.
“I think if you look at the president’s actions, that says everything that you need to know to the question that you’re asking me,” she said.
Diana Mutz, a professor of political science and communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said the backlash Biden might get for speaking out may not be worth the political risk since most people don’t pay attention to whether the president himself, or a spokesperson, is delivering the message.
“Yes, it would be good to have him talk about the fact that states can’t have their own foreign policies,” she said. “But do I think this is influencing the mass public at the moment? Probably not, because they’re not watching that carefully.”
Research by the university’s Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics shows the public’s view of immigration has become more positive in recent decades. But people still want to be assured that migrants are being screened and processed in an orderly fashion, Mutz said.
“That’s the level at which most people are following immigration,” she said.
Less than one in four Americans think the government is doing a good job dealing with the large number of people seeking asylum at the border, according to a June survey by the Pew Research Center.
During the Trump administration, the public’s view of how the government was handling the border situation was also overwhelmingly negative.
After Donald Trump’s strict approach to immigration, which included separating migrant children from their parents, Biden promised to build a more “humane” immigration system.
But immigration advocates accused him of violating that pledge this year when he imposed severe limitations on migrants seeking asylum that advocates said was not that different from Trump’s policy.
The same federal judge who ruled against the Trump administration’s efforts to limit asylum to people who don’t apply for protection in a country they travel through before coming to the United States likewise ruled Tuesday that Biden’s asylum rule is unlawful. The administration is appealing that decision.
Danilo Zak, acting director of policy and advocacy at Church World Service, said the Biden administration has put forward some good policies and has smart people working on the issue.
“But my overall assessment would be that President Biden has not lived up to the promises that he made,” he said, “on creating a more humane border.”
Contributing: John C. Moritz and Kate Perez, Corpus Christi Caller-Times
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Buoys and razor wire at the Texas border: Why has Biden stayed silent?