WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the U.S. Congress stepped up attacks on President Joe Biden on Monday over a surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, but were criticized in turn by Democrats for their own immigration record and opposing the coronavirus relief program.
Kevin McCarthy, the House of Representatives minority leader, visited border facilities in El Paso, Texas, with a dozen fellow Republicans to blame Biden for the suffering of migrants arriving at the border and to warn about potential health and security risks to the United States.
Biden’s efforts to reverse some of former President Donald Trump’s restrictive border policies have been accompanied by an upswing in border arrivals. As of Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services’ refugee office had about 8,800 unaccompanied children in custody.
Republicans in both the House and Senate say the Biden administration sparked the surge by promising to unwind Trump policies. They turned to the border security issue, which strongly appeals to their base supporters, as Democrats talked up Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief measure, which passed Congress without a single Republican vote.
“I came down here because I heard of the crisis. It’s more than a crisis. This is a human heartbreak,” McCarthy said from a podium set up on the sandy Texan terrain days before the House is due to take up immigration reform legislation.
“It didn’t have to happen. This crisis is created by the presidential policies of this new administration.”
Even before he began speaking, McCarthy had been pre-empted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who targeted the California Republican as part of a new Democratic messaging campaign aimed at promoting the benefits of the COVID-19 legislation.
“McCarthy is desperately trying to distract Americans from the fact that every single House Republican voted to block a relief bill that delivers vaccines in arms, money in pockets, children back in school safely and people back in jobs,” Pelosi’s office said in a statement highlighting media reports about $1,400 stimulus checks and canceled job furloughs in his district.
Democratic Representative Veronica Escobar, whose district includes El Paso, said McCarthy and his colleagues used the border as a political prop to deliver a dated, xenophobic message about immigrants.
“We saw my Republican colleagues stoke fear and anger toward immigrants, fueling that xenophobia. You know, the whole immigrants-bringing-diseases-into-our-country kind of thing,” she told an online news conference.
“They said that we should do nothing,” Escobar added. “That was their approach, we know, toward COVID … and they’re now advocating the same approach toward immigration.”
The White House also pushed back on Republican charges that Biden was not taking the border issue seriously and laid the blame for the current surge at the feet of Trump.
“We recognize this is a big problem. The last administration left us a dismantled and unworkable system. And like any other problem, we are going to do everything we can to solve it,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Peter Cooney
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