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Blame Trump for the border mess, says Biden's homeland security secretary

U.S. immigration officers on Feb. 25 release processed

U.S. immigration officers on Feb. 25 release processed asylum-seekers to await court hearings in the U.S. Migrants who applied for asylum and have waited for months in camps on the Mexican side are slowly being processed. Credit: Getty Images / John Moore

Turning away from 'cruelty'

A day after former President Donald Trump blistered his successor's changes in Mexican border security policies, snarling that President Joe Biden "wants it all to go to hell," the official now in charge was having none of that.

"It takes time to build out of the depths of cruelty that the administration before us established," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Monday at a White House briefing. "What we are seeing now at the border is the immediate result of the dismantlement of the system and the time that it takes to rebuild it virtually from scratch."

That includes creating a new system to handle migrant arrivals at the border, he said. Currently, the vast majority of migrants arriving illegally at the border are being immediately expelled under a Trump-era emergency rule for the coronavirus pandemic, and Mayorkas appealed them to not try to cross. "We are not saying: ‘Don’t come.’ We are saying: ‘Don’t come now,’ because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process as quickly as possible," Mayorkas said.

But for now, "the fact of the matter is that families and single adults are indeed being returned under the COVID-19 restrictions," he said, calling the move an obligation "in the service of public health." Other migrants who submitted applications for asylum and have waited for months in camps on the Mexican side are slowly being processed.

Asked whether there's a border crisis, Mayorkas said no, calling it instead a "challenge." The Biden administration has reopened temporary facilities to hold an increasing number of migrant children arriving unaccompanied on the southern border. But officials say the shelters overseen by DHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement are not comparable to the "cages" in Customs and Border Protection's holding facilities that generated widespread outrage under the Trump administration. Nevertheless, the shelters have been criticized by progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx/Queens) as still inhumane.

Mayorkas said a task force created under the Biden administration will allow the reunification of families who were separated during the Trump administration and stay in the U.S. if they choose. "We will explore lawful pathways for them to remain in the United States — and to address the family needs," Mayorkas said.

More than 5,500 families were forcibly separated at the border under Trump's "zero tolerance" policy, and the parents of more than 600 children still had not been located when Biden took office. Mayorkas said about 105 of those families have since been reunited.

Joe and AMLO get virtual

The issue of migrants at the border was a prime topic of discussion in Biden's virtual meeting on Monday with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, reports Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez.

López Obrador had a friendly relationship with Trump — despite the fact that the Mexican president is a leftist populist, while Trump called himself a nationalist. López Obrador sent troops to Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala in an attempt to stem some of the flow of Central American migrants heading north to the United States. He also cooperated with the Trump administration’s "Remain in Mexico" policy that required migrants to wait in Mexico or their home country for their U.S. asylum hearing date, a process that often takes months.

Biden and López Obrador, following the meeting, issued a joint statement pledging greater cooperation on addressing migration, the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. The Mexican government in a separate statement added the two sides also agreed to crack down on migrant trafficking.

Ahead of the meeting, López Obrador's checklist of priorities included pressing Biden to give pharmaceutical company Pfizer permission to sell his country vaccine produced in the United States, something that Canada also has requested. White House officials reiterated that Biden remained focused on first vaccinating U.S. citizens before turning his attention to assisting other nations.

Minimum wage boost takes a hike

Democrats’ efforts to include a minimum wage increase in their $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief and stimulus bill seemed all but dead Monday as Senate leaders prepared to begin debate on their own version of the House-passed aid package, The Associated Press writes.

Top Democrats abandoned a Plan B — a potential amendment threatening tax increases on big companies that don’t boost workers’ pay to certain levels, Senate aides said. Plan A went by the wayside last week after the Senate parliamentarian said the chamber's rules forbid inclusion of a straight-out minimum wage increase in the relief measure.

"At this moment, we may not have path, but I hope we can find one" for pushing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, said No. 2 Senate Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois.

Biden lobbied Democratic senators to hold together their bare majority so the bill can pass. Several moderate senators have raised concerns about the structure of unemployment insurance benefits and Biden’s plan to send $350 billion to state and local governments, among other issues, The Washington Post reported.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who participated in a Monday call with the president, said the conversation focused on "targeting the dollars ... it wasn’t talking about reducing it, just targeting" the money that was included.

Enhanced unemployment benefits will expire March 14 unless the relief legislation is signed into law first.

Union due for Amazon?

A video message from Biden offered encouragement to workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama who are seeking to win recognition for a union at the online retailing giant. He also warned against company intimidation of the organizing drive.

Though Biden never mentioned Amazon by name, his meaning was clear. "Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama, and all across America, are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace," Biden said in the video. "There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda," he continued. "No supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences. You know, every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. The law guarantees that choice."

Biden pledged to be a pro-union president, and Stuart Appelbaum — president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is conducting the union drive at the Amazon warehouse — thanked Biden "for sending a clear message of support" for the workers.

The company has waged an aggressive anti-union campaign leading up to the vote, which began on Feb. 8 and runs through March 29. Amazon is the nation’s second-largest employer, with more than 800,000 employees in the U.S.

Garland pick near full flower

In a 15-7 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday advanced Merrick Garland's nomination to serve as Biden’s attorney general.

Four Republicans joined all of the panel's Democrats in support of Garland, while seven Republicans opposed him. A full Senate vote could come within days.

Garland pledged in his confirmation hearing last month to "fend off any effort by anyone" to politically influence Justice Department investigations. He said his first priority would be to fully prosecute the "heinous" crimes committed in the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

COVID trend worries CDC

The United States reported a 3% decline in new cases of the coronavirus last week, a much smaller drop than in the previous six weeks, prompting concerns from federal officials that the infection rate is headed for a plateau at a "very high number."

With about 70,000 new cases daily, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said during a White House news briefing that "with these statistics, I am really worried about more states rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19."

She warned: "Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained." New York State had the highest number of new cases per 100,000 residents last week, followed by New Jersey and South Carolina, according to a Reuters analysis.

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:

  • Donald and Melania Trump received their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine in January before leaving the White House, an adviser to the ex-president said Monday. By doing so quietly and privately, Trump missed an opportunity to influence vaccine skeptics among his supporters. Trump did encourage COVID-19 vaccinations in his speech to a conservative group on Sunday. Biden received his shot publicly when he was president-elect.
  • Biden's decision not to sanction the Saudi royal family after a U.S. intelligence report concluded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been condemned by the Post's publisher. Biden gave Saudi Arabia a "one free murder" pass, Fred Ryan wrote in an op-ed.
  • Though the Biden White House has committed to releasing visitor logs, it doesn’t plan to divulge the names of attendees of virtual meetings, which are its primary mode of interaction during the pandemic, Politico reports. While there is more transparency than under Trump, the Biden administration has fallen short of the openness standard from Barack Obama's presidency.
  • The Manhattan District Attorney's Office, investigating Trump and his family business, is sharpening its focus on the Trump Organization's long-serving chief financial officer, Allen H. Weisselberg, according to The New York Times. The moves could step up pressure on him to cooperate, the report said.
  • The Capitol insurrection was still underway when right-wing media figures began promoting falsehoods that antifa and Black Lives Matter, not pro-Trump rioters, were to blame for the violence. Some Republican officeholders parroted the fiction. Nearly two months and hundreds of arrests of hard-core Trumpists later, many Trump supporters firmly believe the fables. The New York Times and The Washington Post wrote about how the disinformation crowded out the truth.
  • The Senate on Monday evening voted 64-33 to confirm Miguel Cardona as education secretary, a post that will give him an important role in efforts to reopen schools. Born into poverty to Puerto Rican parents, Cardona started out as a teacher and rose to lead Connecticut schools as the state's commissioner of education.
  • Alaska's Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose support could save or sink Biden's choice of Neera Tanden to head the Office of Management and Budget, met with the nominee Monday and said she's still undecided. Murkowski said she has "follow-up questions but we had a good conversation." She added: "I’m still doing my assessment."

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