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White House won't call border surge a 'crisis,' but it's surely a huge mess

Migrants waiting in Tijuana, Mexico, kneel as they

Migrants waiting in Tijuana, Mexico, kneel as they pray March 2 during a protest demanding clearer U.S. policies on migrants. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Guillermo Arias

Janison: Biden's border blues

Only a week ago, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas declined to use the word "crisis" as his agency shifted border-patrol deployments because of a surge of migrants coming from Mexico. President Joe Biden ignored a question about the issue during a Tuesday event on pandemic relief for small business. White House press secretary Jen Psaki wouldn't accept that word either at her briefing Tuesday.

"Look, I don’t think we need to sit here and put new labels on what we have already conveyed is challenging, what we have conveyed is a top priority for the president," Psaki said. But semantic arguments aside, it's indisputably a mess, with the number of unaccompanied children arriving in the U.S. reportedly tripling in just the last two weeks, according to reports.

Now Biden cannot downplay the problem, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. More than 3,200 of these kids were in federal custody Monday, according to documents cited by CNN. Of those, about 2,600 awaited placement in shelters suitable for minors. Only 500 beds were available.

The new administration's reversal of former President Donald Trump's punitive border policies, in favor of a more humane approach, apparently drove the sharp rise in the arrivals. The promise of a new and orderly asylum system can't keep up with the rush of people fleeing desperate social conditions in Central America.

For Biden, any response along the lines of ex-President Barack Obama's strategies of deportation and enforcement stands to disappoint or provoke the Democratic left, where the "abolish ICE" slogan was in vogue a short time ago. Like Trump in 2019, Biden has turned to emergency youth facilities in border states, amid the added problem of the coronavirus pandemic.

Handling an influx like this requires an organized short-term response by the federal government. The elusive decades-old drive for a comprehensive new immigration law could bring clarity to the children's situation one day — but offers no assistance now. Improving conditions in the migrants' home countries also belongs to the longer term. The concern on all sides is about getting through the day.

No matter what Biden does or does not do, the underlying facts will no doubt be grim and tough enough. His predecessor made a bizarre show of the issue. But that didn't mean the crowds at the border weren't a serious continual problem, which Biden will need to face one way or another. In the meantime, Republicans are honing their I-told-you-so talking points for the 2022 midterm elections.

COVID bill bonus: Obamacare boost

Several million people stand to save hundreds of dollars or more in health insurance costs under the $1.9 trillion Democratic COVID-19 relief and stimulus legislation, which is expected to get final approval from the House on Wednesday, according to The Associated Press.

The gains will go to those covered by Obamacare or just now signing up, self-employed people who buy their own insurance and don’t currently get federal help, laid-off workers struggling to retain employer coverage, and most anyone collecting unemployment. One example: A hypothetical 45-year-old making $58,000 now gets no aid under the Affordable Care Act. Under the relief bill, the person would be entitled to a $1,250 tax credit, or 20% off their premiums, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Many more could benefit if about a dozen states accept a Medicaid deal in the legislation. Taken together, the components of the coronavirus bill represent the biggest expansion of federal help for health insurance since Obamacare was signed into law in 2010.

Poll: Pain relief needed

About 4 in 10 Americans say they’re still feeling the financial impact from the loss of jobs or income as the economic recovery remains uneven one year into the coronavirus pandemic, according to an AP-NORC poll.

The survey buttresses impressions that the economic fallout of the public health crisis has been devastating for some Americans, while leaving others virtually unscathed or even in better shape financially. The impact has been felt harder by Black and Latino households and younger Americans.

Roughly 745,000 Americans filed for unemployment benefits the week of Feb. 22, according to the Labor Department, and roughly 18 million Americans remain on the unemployment rolls. The poll’s findings reflect what some economists have called a "K-shaped recovery."

Biden on Tuesday visited a hardware store in Washington, to highlight the changes his administration has made to the Paycheck Protection Program to help the smallest of businesses amid the pandemic. He said that because of lax oversight when the Trump administration ran the program, small businesses "got in line but they couldn't get the help, and we found out that an awful lot of that went to bigger businesses that in fact weren't supposed to qualify."

Spring in D.C.: Cherry blossoms and camo

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday approved a request from the Capitol Police to extend the deployment of National Guard troops to protect Congress for another two months, into May, amid worries about continued threats since the deadly Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection.

Officials have been scrambling in recent days to determine if and how to fill the request for more than 2,000 Guard personnel as the original March 12 deadline for them to leave Washington loomed, The Associated Press reported. There are currently about 5,100 Guard troops in Washington, and they were scheduled to leave this weekend.

The Pentagon said defense officials will work with the Capitol Police to incrementally reduce the number of Guard needed in the city as time goes on.

Meanwhile, the investigation into the attack on the Capitol continues. The Washington Post reports that federal prosecutors alleged in a Monday night court filing that Stewart Rhodes, founder of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, was in direct contact before, during and immediately after the riot with members who since have been charged with plotting to prevent Congress from affirming the 2020 presidential election results.

Rhodes, who has not been charged, texted Tuesday that the allegations are "total nonsense." He repeatedly has blamed the rampage on rogue members of his group.

Dog of Joe bitin'

The Bidens' 3-year-old German shepherd, Major, will return to the White House following a timeout. After he nipped a Secret Service agent's hand, Major was sent to stay with family friends in the Bidens' hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, joined by the Biden's older German shepherd, Champ.

Here's how Psaki spun the bad-dog episode: "On Monday, the first family’s younger dog Major was surprised by an unfamiliar person and reacted in a way that resulted in a minor injury to the individual, which was handled by the White House medical unit, with no further treatment needed." An administration official confirmed to The Associated Press that an agent was Major’s victim, and The Washington Post was told that the bite left a small mark.

Psaki said plans already had been made to send the dogs to Delaware for care while first lady Jill Biden left town on Monday to spend Tuesday and Wednesday touring U.S. military installations out west. The dogs will return to the White House soon, Psaki said.

The first lady told NBC talk show host Kelly Clarkson in a recent interview that getting Major and the mellower Champ, 12, settled in has been a big job. "They have to take the elevator. They’re not used to that. They have to go out on the South Lawn with lots of people watching them," Jill Biden said. "So, you know, that’s what I’ve been obsessed with, just getting everybody settled and calm."

It wasn't the first time a Major encounter caused a minor medical incident. Biden slipped while playing with him at home in November, resulting in hairline fractures in his right foot. But life has been full of second chances for the rescue dog adopted from an animal shelter. The next test may come if and when a promised White House cat shows up.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments on Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • A day after Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt announced he won't run for reelection in 2022, concluding 26 years in Congress, Trump issued a brief statement of tribute fixating on a single moment of Blunt's career. "He was one of the first people who came to my defense against the Impeachment Hoax #2 … and it was greatly appreciated by me," wrote Trump.
  • Stephen Miller, an architect of Trump's hard-line immigration policies, weighed in after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle told Oprah Winfrey of concern over racism inside the royal family when Markle was pregnant with their son over his "skin color." Miller tweeted that when he met "several members of the Royal Family," he found them "deeply committed to preserving the traditions and heritage of the UK."
  • Former President Jimmy Carter said he is "disheartened, saddened and angry" over voting restriction laws moving through the Republican-controlled Georgia legislature that would "turn back the clock" on ballot access in his state. Carter, 96, rarely comments on partisan politics.
  • The Metro-North worker who called in sick to be part of the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol was officially fired by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Tuesday, transit officials told the New York Post.
  • Federico Klein, the Trump-appointed State Department aide charged with assaulting police officers during the Capitol riot, will remain in jail while awaiting trial, a federal magistrate ruled Tuesday. The magistrate, Zia Faruqui, ridiculed the defense’s claim that it was unclear how Klein obtained a riot shield he allegedly jammed into a door police were trying to close to lock out the rioters, Politico reported.
  • Psaki said the next round of stimulus checks will not have Biden's name on it, as the first one sent under Trump had his. She said of Biden: "This is not about him, this is about the American people getting relief."
  • The Republican focus as of late on culture-war pop-up flare-ups like Dr. Seuss or Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head reflects in part their difficulty in making Biden an easy target or animating figure for the GOP base, writes The Associated Press. "It’s gonna take Republicans a few weeks to realize how badly they got rolled on the COVID bill while they wasted all their precious time and energy whining about Dr. Seuss," tweeted Amanda Carpenter, a former adviser to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

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