Updated at 1:32 p.m. with news conference ended
WASHINGTON – A surge of migrants at the border dominated President Joe Biden’s first news conference on Thursday, a 62-minute formality he delayed longer than any predecessor in six decades.
“I guess I should be flattered. People are coming because I’m a nice guy” and a “decent man,” Biden said, alluding to the hardline policies of predecessor Donald Trump, who invoked the public health emergency to deny entry for the past year to asylum seekers. “There’s no easy answer.”
Attacked by Republicans for unleashing the crisis, Biden pushed back.
“I make no apology” for ending Trump-era policies of “separating children from their mothers,” or forcing asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated. “I make no apologies” for wiping away Trump-ear policies that were an affront to international law and “human dignity.”
“My predecessor – oh God, I miss him,” he said at one point.
The White House had hoped Biden could focus on the quickening pace of COVID-19 vaccinations and the $1.9 trillion relief package he signed. He announced that he has doubled the target for vaccinations in his first 100 days to 200 million doses, for instance.
But his administration has been bogged down in recriminations over the migrant situation, which he and top aides pointedly refuse to label a crisis even as Republicans and many Democrats use that term.
At last count, 1,750 migrant boys were being detained at the downtown Dallas convention center, one of several emergency shelters set up to ease pressure at overwhelmed border facilities.
Unlike Trump’s policy of “ripping children” from the arms of parents to deter future migrants, Biden portraying his own approach as more compassionate but hampered because Trump dismantled much of the immigration system, reducing detention space now desperately needed.
He noted that Fort Bliss, in El Paso, will soon provide 5,000 beds.
Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are leading 17 other GOP senators on a visit to the border in McAllen on Friday to highlight the crisis and accusations that Biden, by easing Trump-era restrictions, all but invited a flood of illegal migration.
Biden defended his policies, noting that only unaccompanied minors are being allowed into the United States. Families and adults are removed quickly to Mexico.
“Tens of thousands of people who are over 18 years of age, and single people, are being sent back,” he said.
When a reporter mentioned a 9-year-old boy from Honduras who walked all the way to the U.S. border, Biden interjected: “Astounding.”
That idea that he would force a child to remain on the other side of the Rio Grande “to starve to death… no previous administration has ever done that, except Trump. I’m not going to do it.”
He challenged Republicans to end “the politics of division” to help solve this an other challenges, such as climate change and gun violence.
“I’ve been hired to solve problems, not to create division,” he said. These are each “long term problems.”
Asked about overcrowding at a Border Patrol facility in Donna, Texas, Biden said: “That is totally unacceptable.”
The news media has been shut out of that and other facilities, and Biden tread carefully when pressed to commit to allowing access that would expose the conditions faced by young migrants.
“You’ll have full access to everything once we get this thing moving,” he said, indicating that such access would not be granted until the overcrowding is eased.
The border surge is hardly the only crisis weighing on the administration.
Mass shootings that left 18 dead in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo., this month have reignited a contentious debate over gun control. Biden has already weighed in with demands to reinstate a ban on assault style weapons.
He talked tough on China, and indicated that while he’ll likely miss a May 1 deadline to withdraw the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan, he “can’t picture” any still being there into 2022.
Biden called the filibuster a “relic of the Jim Crow era” that has been “abused in a gigantic way,” though he stopped short of demanding the Senate end the practice, as many progressives demand.
He used the platform to assail GOP efforts to roll back mail-in balloting and other rules that allowed record turnout in the fall election, despite the pandemic.
“It’s sick,” Biden said, and “un-American,” adding that ordinary Republican voters, if not elected GOP officials pressing such measures in Austin and other state capitols, view such restrictions as “despicable.”
“It’s sick, deciding in some states that you cannot bring water to people standing in line waiting to vote” or closing polls at 5 p.m. just as working people are getting off work, or ending the use of absentee ballots except in the most extreme circumstances.
“It is the most pernicious thing. This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle. I mean, this is gigantic,” Biden said. “It cannot be sustained.”
Biden said he expects to run for a second term but can’t plan that far ahead. Nor would he prognosticate on whether he expected that Trump would be the GOP nominee in 2024.
“I have no idea if there’ll even be a Republican Party, do you?” he quipped, referring to a post-Trump civil war that has roiled the GOP, as fallout and criminal inquiries persist from the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
With the pandemic subsiding but still active, the White House and the White House Correspondents’ Association have agreed to limit media attendance. Thirty reporters were on hand in the East Room, plus photojournalists and technicians, a fraction of the typical roster for a presidential news conference.
Later in the afternoon, Biden will meet virtually with leaders of the European Union as part of an ongoing effort to patch relations after Trump’s trade threats, haranguing over cost-sharing in the NATO defense alliance, and resistance to facing down Russian aggression or calling out strongman Vladimir Putin for meddling in U.S. elections.
Biden has gone longer without a first news conference than any president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Thursday was day 65 but by the 60 day mark in his presidency, John F. Kennedy had held seven news conferences. The first was just five days after his inauguration.
George Bush, Richard Nixon and Eisenhower held four in their first two months. Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton each held just one – but each was sooner after taking office than Biden’s.
Biden is on a better pace than Trump in filling out the top levels of his administration, though. The Senate has confirmed his full cabinet.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, illegal border crossings rose last summer and fall and spiked up sharply, from 78,442 in January to 100,441 in February. That’s about triple the total from February 2020.
Biden opened with a brief recitation of some good news:
By day 100 of his tenure, Americans will have received 200 million shots, doubling a conservative promise he’d made at the outset.
The economy is projected to grow at 6% this year.
Unemployment is down.