Editor’s Note: This is a series of clips of all the immigration questions President Biden answered during his first press conference as President, including the official White House transcript of those clips.
THE PRESIDENT: Okay. How about Yamiche?
Q Thanks so much, Mr. President. You’ve said over and over again that immigrants shouldn’t come to this country right now; this isn’t the time to come. That message is not being received. Instead, the perception of you that got you elected — as a moral, decent man — is the reason why a lot of immigrants are coming to this country and entrusting you with unaccompanied minors.
How do you resolve that tension? And how are you choosing which families can stay and which can go, given the fact that even though, with Title 42, there are some families that are staying? And is there a timeline for when we won’t be seeing these overcrowded facilities with—run by CPB [sic], when it comes to unaccompanied minors?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, I guess I should be flattered people are coming because I’m the nice guy; that’s the reason why it’s happening — that I’m a decent man or however it’s phrased. That, you know, that’s why they’re coming because they know Biden is a good guy.
The truth of the matter is: Nothing has changed. As many people came — 28 percent increase in children to the border in my administration; 31 percent in the last year of — in 2019, before the pandemic, in the Trump administration. It happens every single, solitary year: There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March. That happens every year.
In addition to that, there is a — and nobody — and, by the way, does anybody suggest that there was a 31 percent increase under Trump because he was a nice guy and he was doing good things at the border? That’s not the reason they’re coming.
The reason they’re coming is that it’s the time they can travel with the least likelihood of dying on the way because of the heat in the desert, number one. Number two, they’re coming because of the circumstances in-country—in-country.
The way to deal with this problem — and I started to deal with it back when I was a United States senator — I mean, Vice President — putting together a bipartisan plan of over $700 million to deal with the root causes of why people are leaving.
What did Trump do? He eliminated that funding. He didn’t use it. He didn’t do it. And in addition to that, what he did —h e dismantled all the elements that exist to deal with what had been a problem and — and has been — continued to be a problem for a long time. He, in fact, shut down the — the number of beds available. He did not fund HHS to get people to get the children out of those — those Border Patrol facilities where they should not be and not supposed to be more than a few days — a little while. But he dismantled all of that.
And so what we’re doing now is attempting to rebuild — rebuild the system that can accommodate the — what is happening today. And I like to think it’s because I’m a nice guy, but it’s not. It’s because of what’s happened every year.
Let me say one other thing on this. If you take a look at the number of people who are coming, the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back — are being sent back. Thousands — tens of thousands of people who are — who are over 18 years of age and single — people, one at a time coming, have been sent back, sent home.
We’re sending back the vast majority of the families that are coming. We’re trying to work out now, with Mexico, their willingness to take more of those families back. But we — that’s what’s happening. They’re not getting across the border.
And those who are coming across the border, who are unaccompanied children, we’re moving rapidly to try to put in place what was dismantled, as I said. For example, of all the children who are coming across the border, over 70 percent are either 16 or 17 years old. We’re not talking about people ripping babies from mothers’ arms or little three-year-olds standing on the border. Less than — I think it’s one and a half percent fall in the category of the very young.
So what we’re doing is we’re providing for the space, again, to be able to get these kids out of the Border Patrol facilities, which no child — no one should be in any longer than 72 hours.
And today, I went to — for example, I used all the resources available to me, went to the Defense Department, and — and the Secretary of Defense has just made available Fort Bliss — 5,000 beds be made easily available. Five thousand beds on the Texas border.
So we’re building back up the capacity that should have been maintained and built upon that Trump dismantled. It’s going to take time.
And the other thing we’re doing, I might add — am I giving you too long an answer? Because if you don’t want the details —
THE PRESIDENT: No, no, but I mean — I don’t know how much detail you want about immigration. Maybe I’ll stop there and fin- —
Q My follow-up question is: One, if you could talk a little bit about which families — why they’re being allowed to stay. The families that are being allowed to stay, why they’re being allowed to stay.
And in addition to that, when it comes to the filibuster, which is what Zeke was asking about, there’s — immigration is a big issue, of course, when it — related to the filibuster, but there’s also Republicans who are passing bill after bill, trying to restrict voting rights. Chuck Schumer is calling it an “existential threat” to democracy. Why not back a filibuster rule that at least gets around issues including voting rights or immigration?
Jim Clyburn, someone who — of course, who you know very well, has backed the idea of a filibuster rule when it comes to civil rights and voting rights.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, I’m going to deal with all of those problems. The question is, the priorities as they come and land on my plate.
Let’s go to the first question you asked — the first of the second question you asked. And that is: What about dealing with families? Why are not — some not going back? Because Mexico is refusing to take them back. They’re saying they won’t take them back — not all of them.
We’re in negotiations with the President of Mexico. I think we’re going to see that change. They should all be going back, all be going back. The only people we’re not going to let sitting there on the other side of the Rio Grande by themselves with no help are children.
And what we’re doing there, and it’s an important point to understand — I know you understand; I don’t mean to say it that way — an important point to focus on: The vast majority of people under the age of 18 coming to United States come with a telephone number on a wristband or come with a telephone number in their pocket in the United States — a mother, a father, a close relative, a grandmom or a grandpop.
What was happening before is it was taking literally weeks and weeks, and maybe even months, before anybody would pick up the phone and call to see if there really was someone there. Well, we’ve set up a system now where, within 24 hours, there’s a phone call made as that person or that child crosses the border. And then a verification system is being put in place as of today to determine quickly whether or not that is a trafficker being called or that is actually a mom, a dad, and/or a close relative. They’re establishing that right off the bat.
If it, in fact, is Mom or Dad, Dad says — to take the extreme case — “I got a birth certificate.” Then guess what? We’re getting that kid directly to that parent immediately.
And so that’s going to reduce significantly — there’s two ways to reduce child populations in circumstances that are not acceptable, like being held at a Border Patrol station. One is to get them to the place where they have a relative and set a date as to when a hearing can be held. The second way to do it is put them in a Health and Human Services facility that we’re occupying now — both licensed beds around the country that exist, as well as, for example, federal resources like Fort Bliss — to get them safely in a place where they can be taken care of while their fate is determined.
THE PRESIDENT: Let me get here. Okay, Cecilia Vega.
Q I’d like to circle back to immigration, please. You just listed the reasons that people are coming, talking about in-country problems, saying that it happens every year; you blamed the last administration. Sir, I just got back last night from a reporting trip to the border where I met nine-year-old, Yossell, who walked here from Honduras by himself, along with another little boy. He had that phone number on him —
THE PRESIDENT: Astounding.
Q — and we were able to call his family. His mother says that she sent her son to this country because she believes that you are not deporting unaccompanied minors like her son. That’s why she sent him alone from Honduras.
So, sir, you blamed the last administration, but is your messaging — in saying that these children are and will be allowed to stay in this country and work their way through this process — encouraging families like Yossell says to come?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, the idea that I’m going to say — which I would never do — “if an unaccompanied child ends up at the border, we’re just going to let him starve to death and stay on the other side” — no previous administration did that either, except Trump. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it.
That’s why I’ve asked the Vice President of the United States, yesterday, to be the lead person on dealing with focusing on the fundamental reasons why people leave Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador in the first place. It’s because of earthquakes, floods. It’s because of lack of food. It’s because of gang violence. It’s because of a whole range of things.
That — when I was Vice President and had the same obligation to deal with unaccompanied children, I was able to get it slowed up significantly by working with the heads of state of those communities to do things like — in one of the major cities, the reason people were leaving is they couldn’t walk in the street because they were getting — their kids were getting beat up or shot or in gang violence.
Well, what I was able to do is not give money to the head of state, because so many are corrupt, but I was able to say, “Okay, you need lighting in the streets to change things? I’ll put the lighting in.” We got a contractor. We got the type of lighting. We paid directly to the contractor; it did not go through the government. And violent crime significantly was reduced in that city. Fewer people sought to leave.
When this hurricane occurred — two hurricanes — instead of us going down and helping in a major way, so that people would not have reason to want to leave in the first place because they didn’t have housing or water or sustenance, we did nothing. We’re going to do a lot in our administration. We’re going to be spending that 700-plus million dollars a year to change the life and circumstances of why people leave in the first place.
That mother did not sit around with — on the kitchen table and say, “You know, I got a great idea: The way I’m going to make sure my son get taken care of is I’m going to put a…” — how old was he, or she?
Q He’s — he’s nine. I also met a 10-year-old.
THE PRESIDENT: A nine-year-old. “I’m going to send him on a thousand-mile journey across the desert and up to the United States because I know Joe Biden is a nice guy and he’ll take care of him.”
What a desperate act to have to take. The circumstances must be horrible. So we can do something about that. That’s what the Vice President is going to be doing: what I did. When President Obama asked me to come and deal, I was in — I was in Turkey at the time, and he said, “You got to come home and take care of this.” So we put together a plan and it had an impact.
And so, the question here is whether — how we go ahead and do this; what we do. There’s no easy answer
Q A quick follow, if I may. Do you want to see these unaccompanied minors staying in this country, or should they be deported eventually?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, the judgment has to be made whether or not — and in this young man’s case, he has a mom at home; there’s an overwhelming reason why he’d be put in a plane and flown back to his mom.
Q Final follow, sir. You mentioned circumstances that must be horrific. The Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas — I was there — is at 1,556 percent capacity —
THE PRESIDENT: Yep.
Q — right now, with mostly unaccompanied minors. There are kids that are sleeping on floors. They are packed into these pods. I’ve spoken to lawyers who say that they — some of these children have not seen the sun in days. What’s your reaction — what is your reaction to these images that have come out from that particular facility? Is what’s happening inside acceptable to you? And when is this going to be fixed?
THE PRESIDENT: Is — that’s a serious question, right?
Is it acceptable to me? Come on. That’s why we’re going to be moving a thousand of those kids out quickly. That’s why I got Fort Bliss opened up. That’s why I’ve been working from the moment this started to happen to try to find additional access for children to be able to safely — not just children, but particularly children — to be able to safely be housed while we follow through on the rest of what’s happening.
That is totally unacceptable.
THE PRESIDENT: Okay. Kristen.
Q Thank you very much, Mr. President. Given the conditions that were just laid out at the migrant facilities at the U.S. border, will you commit to allowing journalists to have access to the facilities that are overcrowded moving forward?
THE PRESIDENT: I will commit when my plan, very shortly, is underway to let you have access to not just them, but to other facilities as well.
Q How soon will journalists be able to have access to the facilities? We’ve obviously been allowed to be inside one, but we haven’t seen the facilities in which children are packed together to really give the American people a chance to see that. Will you commit to transparency on this issue, Mr. President?
THE PRESIDENT: I will commit to transparency, and — as soon as I am in a position to be able to implement what we are doing right now.
And one of the reasons I haven’t gone down — I have all my — my chief folks have gone down — is I don’t want to become the issue. I don’t want to be, you know, bringing all of the Secret Service and everybody with me to get in the way. So this is being set up, and you’ll have full access to everything once we get this thing moving.
Q Okay. And just to be clear: How soon will that be, Mr. President?
THE PRESIDENT: I don’t know, to be clear.
Q Okay. And do you bear responsibility for everything that’s happening at the border now? I hear you talking a lot about the past administration. You decided to roll back some of those policies, did you move too quickly to roll back (inaudible) policies?
THE PRESIDENT: To roll back what? I’m sorry.
Q Did you move too quickly to roll back some of the executive orders of your predecessor?
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, all the policies that were underway were not helping at all — did not slow up the amount of immigration — and there’s many people coming.
And rolling back the policies of separating children from — from their mothers, I make no apology for that. Rolling back the policies of “Remain in Mexico,” sitting on the edge of the Rio Grande in a muddy circumstance with not enough to eat and — I make no apologies for that.
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. And so, I make no apologies for that.
THE PRESIDENT: And I think that I got one more question here. Janet from Univision.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. We, too, have been reporting at the border. And just like Cecilia, we ran into a pair of siblings who came in on Monday, who were detained by CBP — had the phone number for their mother who lives in the U.S. We have contacted the mother. That’s the only way they know her kids are here because CBP, today, Thursday, has not contacted that mother. So when can we expect your promise of things getting better with contacting and expediency and processing?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, they’re already getting better, but they’re going to get real — they’ll get a whole hell of lot better real quick, or we’re going to hear of some people leaving, okay?
We can get this done. We’re going to get it done.
I had a long meeting with the entire team and several Cabinet-level officers the other night. We’re going to be moving, within the next — within the next week, over 100,000 — I mean, 1,000 people out of the Border Patrol into safe, secure beds and facilities. We’re going to significantly ramp up. We’re already out there contacting everyone, from getting some of the employees at HHS — and there’s a lot of them doing other things — and move them into making those calls. We’re in a — we’re in the process of rearranging and providing for the personnel needed to get that done.
But I admire the fact that you were down there; you’re making the calls yourself. It’s real.
The next thing that has to happen though — as you well know has to happen — there have to be some certitude that this is the — actually mom, dad, or whomever. And there’s ways to do that. There’s ways to do that — a little bit like determining whether or not you got the right code for your credit card, you know? “What was your dog’s name?” kind of a thing. I’m being a bit facetious, but not really. And also seeking harder data, from DNA to — to birth certificates, which takes longer.
So, I want to do this as quickly as humanly possible and as safely as possible.
Q As you well know, treating the root cau- — causes in Latin America doesn’t change things overnight. How do you realistically and physically keep these families from coming to the U.S. when things will not get better in their countries right away?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I can’t guarantee that. But I know, you know, that old thing: The journey of 1,000 miles starts with the first step.
You know as well as I do; you cover it: You have serious — it’s not like somebody at a sitting hand-hewn table in Guatemala — I mean, in — in somewhere in Mexico or in Guadalupe, saying, “I got a great idea. Let’s sell everything we have. Give it to a coyote. Have him take our kids across the border and into a desert where they don’t speak the language. Won’t that be fun? Let’s go.” That’s not how it happens. People don’t want to leave.
When my great grandfather got on a coffin ship in the Irish Sea, expectation was: Was he going to live long enough on that ship to get to the United States of America? But they left because of what the Brits had been doing. They were in real, real trouble. They didn’t want to leave. But they had no choice. So you got — we can’t — I can’t guarantee we’re going to solve everything, but I can guarantee we can make everything better. We can make it better. We can change the lives of so many people.
And the other thing I want to point out to you and I hope you point out: I realize it’s much more heart wrenching — and it is — to deal with a five- and six- and seven-year-old. But you went down there, and you saw: The vast majority of these children — 70 percent — are 16 years old, 17 years old, and mostly males. Doesn’t make it — that doesn’t make it good, bad, or indifferent. But the idea that we have tens of thousands of kids in these God-awful facilities that are, really, little babies crying all night — and there’s some; that’s true. That’s why we got to act.
And yesterday, I asked my team — both the director of the two agencies, as well as others — I asked them what would they, in fact — and I asked their opinion because they’re the experts — but I said, “Focus on the most vulnerable immediately.”
But there’s no reason why, in the next month, as people cross the border, that phone call can’t be made in the first 48 hours and begin.
Q If I may ask one last question: Have you had any talks with Senate Republicans who are threatening this administration with not considering the immigration legislation that was passed in the House until the situation at the border has been resolved?
THE PRESIDENT: No, because I know they have to posture for a while. They sort of got to get it out of their system. This is a — but I’m ready to work with any Republican who wants to help solve the problem and make the situation better.
But, folks, I’m going. Thank you very, very much. I appreciate it. Thank you.