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Biden's immigration plan runs into on-the-ground realities

Washington(CNN) The president of Guatemala had a private piece of advice for Vice President Kamala Harris when she visited earlier this summer, on her goal of slowing the rush of hopeful migrants to the US border with Mexico.

Be more assertive, President Alejandro Giammattei told her. Send a strong message to migrants and smugglers who often reinterpret announcements to use them to their advantage, Giammattei said, according to a senior Guatemalan official who spoke to CNN.

Shortly after the meeting, in a joint press conference, Harris did just that, issuing a stern but crystal-clear warning to migrants: "Do not come."

But nearly two months later, migrants continue to arrive at the US-Mexico border in record numbers at a time when arrivals usually dip as a result of the blistering summer heat. The scope of the challenge came into focus again on Thursday, when US Customs and Border Protection announced the agency encountered 212,672 people at the US-Mexico border in July, a two-decade high.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged the "serious challenge" that's posed for the administration.

"We are facing a serious challenge at our southern border, and the challenge is of course made more acute and more difficult because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It has also been made more difficult because of the fact that the prior administration dismantled our asylum system," he told reporters Thursday, speaking from Brownsville, Texas.

In the administration's effort to distance themselves from former President Donald Trump's restrictive immigration agenda and strike a note of compassion, Biden officials have often sent conflicting messages about who's allowed into the US and when. As a result, the border situation remains a political liability for the White House, which is drawing criticism from both the left and the right.

Republicans continue to claim that Biden has a border crisis on his hands that is of his own making, while Democratic progressives have complained that Biden is not moving fast enough to loosen regulations and dismantle Trump-era policies.

"They're kind of fighting the two-front war on the border and they're trying to message to different audiences. And that, I think, is the reason you see such a stark contrast on how they're approaching all this: They're speaking to two different audiences while trying to navigate their own policy on the way forward," said Cris Ramon, an independent immigration consultant.

In recent weeks, the Department of Homeland Security has surged resources and personnel to the Rio Grande Valley, which has been overwhelmed by the number of arrivals, deploying Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to assist Border Patrol, bolstering medical staff, and setting up flights to send people to other border sectors for processing.

Border arrests remain at the highest level in decades, reaching one million before the end of the fiscal year. The number of unaccompanied children in CBP custody has shot up. Whistleblowers have come forward alleging poor conditions at a temporary facility for children that's now also become the subject of a government watchdog review. And immigrant advocacy groups have criticized the administration's decision to keep expelling migrants encountered at the border.

The Biden administration is fighting legal battles on both its left and right flank. The American Civil Liberties Union is heading back to court to challenge the administration's continued use of a public health authority allowing the swift expulsion of migrants. And the Justice Department challenged an executive order issued by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott restricting the transport of migrants. A federal judge has temporarily blocked the order.

'Balance between security and compassion'

The US has historically relied on deterrence to discourage people from journeying to the US-Mexico border. Biden is intimately familiar with those challenges, having been vice president during the 2014 surge in unaccompanied children and previously overseeing efforts to address root causes of migration in Central America.

But in rolling out his immigration agenda, Biden has also had to contend with the realities of migration and the political hurdles accompanying it, at times putting his administration on defense. In April, for example, amid an influx of migrants at the border, Biden resisted signing off on raising the Trump-era refugee cap because of political optics. He later increased it.

A White House official pushed back against the notion that the administration's message isn't consistent. "We are trying to chart a new path from the previous administration in having fair policies and humane policies especially in the treatment of people who are undocumented and the treatment of people who are in detention," the official said. "But I don't think that that is in conflict of a well-managed border."

The White House recently released a document summarizing the steps the administration has taken to address immigration and outlining its blueprint "for a fair, orderly and humane immigration system." It included bolstering public messaging to discourage irregular migration and promoting legal pathways.

"I felt like the blueprint was one of the first times where they really tried to find the balance between security and compassion," said Ali Noorani, president and chief executive officer of the National Immigration Forum.

"Blueprints are not going to do the job in terms of communicating the administration's approach to immigration. For years, if not decades, immigration has been much more of a cultural debate than a political debate or a policy debate. And the administration has got to figure out a way to speak into the cultures and values debate that's really driving the immigration rhetoric," he added.

'Communications disaster'

The White House also pushed out its strategy to address the root causes of migration in Central America, where thousands of migrants are fleeing poverty and violence. Biden tasked Harris with overseeing the effort in March, resulting in her trip to Guatemala and Mexico over the summer. The strategy committed to investing resources and instilling hope in the region.

Since March, the US has allocated more than $250 million in humanitarian relief, provided more than 10 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to the Northern Triangle, and engaged the private sector for additional investment in the region.

While the administration says it's working toward providing lawful pathways to the US from the region, there are still few options for those seeking asylum.

"It's really hard to hear them talk about humanity and at the same time see Biden say people should apply for asylum in country," Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney based in California who works with migrants along the southern border. "It's a communications disaster, in my opinion, in terms of what you're trying to get across to asylum seekers and people fleeing violence in their own country."

Migrants facing deteriorating conditions in their home countries continue to journey to the US southern border. Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who's criticized the administration's handling of the border, tweeted: "Something has to change!"

David Shahoulian, assistant secretary for border and immigration policy at the Department of Homeland Security, said in a court declaration filed last week that the US is encountering "record numbers" of migrants, including families, though many are turned away under a Trump-era border policy.

Repeat crossers also usually make up a considerable portion of monthly arrest totals. Of the more than 212,000 migrants encountered at the border in July, 27% had previously tried to cross the border.

Expedited removal

The number of unaccompanied migrant children has also started to climb again after a record number of arrivals earlier this year overwhelmed facilities. Nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children were arrested in July, marking a new record. On August 11, there were 1,042 unaccompanied children in CBP custody, akin to jail-like facilities designed for adults, not children.

In an indication of the Biden administration's wariness over migrants, including those seeking asylum, journeying to the US southern border, DHS recently resumed a fast-track deportation procedure for migrants.

Certain families will now be subject to the procedure known as "expedited removal," which allows immigration authorities to remove an individual without a hearing before an immigration judge. The procedure will apply to families who are not swiftly expelled under a pandemic-related border policy. On Friday, 73 individuals were removed on "expedited removal" flights, according to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson.

This month, the Biden administration also started flying migrants apprehended at the southern border to the interior of Mexico to try to keep them from attempting to cross the border again.

"I think Biden is doing a great job on the economy. We're going to do a great job on transportation and other things," Cuellar, who also called for Biden to create a border czar position, previously told CNN. "But on immigration, they're not doing a very good job on immigration."

Republicans have blamed the President's policies for driving migration, dubbing it the "Biden border crisis." "The Biden Border Crisis is spiraling out of control. It's a national security crisis. A public health crisis. A humanitarian crisis," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted.

Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, commended the administration's actions on a host of other immigration issues, like narrowing the scope of immigration enforcement, terminating bans on travel and visa issuance, and expanding a form of humanitarian relief known as Temporary Protected Status.

"In the middle, what is getting lost is an extraordinary set of achievements that the Biden administration has been able to put in place without much fanfare and without taking much credit for it," he said.

Biden also put forth a comprehensive immigration reform bill shortly after taking office. While that bill hasn't picked up much momentum, Biden backed including immigration policy in his multitrillion-dollar anti-poverty package, assuring a group of lawmakers that he would stand by them in their push to see a pathway to citizenship for millions signed into law.

But that push, like the slew of immigration policy changes preceding it, will also come with its own set of challenges.

This story has been updated with new border crossing figures and quotes from Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas.