Latino members of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet have defended the administration’s immigration and migration efforts — particularly around the issue of unaccompanied minors — as they denounced the deadlock in Congress over any reform significance of immigration.
At a New York roundtable at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, a bipartisan Latino advocacy group, officials said the administration has made progress in moving migrant minors from detention centers for adults.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said the average time a migrant minor now spends in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security before being transferred to an HHS-approved care facility is less than 24 hours.
Becerra was asked about reports of unaccompanied minors in the United States working in factories, sometimes in dangerous situations. The administration has faced backlash for failing to ensure that children released in the country are protected from exploitation.
Echoing the administration’s previous responses on the issue, Becerra said that once a migrant minor is placed with a sponsor, who is usually a family member, “we don’t have the power to bring that child back,” because unlike foster care, Congress has never given HHS that kind of jurisdiction. “There is no net for this child” when it comes to this kind of exploitation, he said.
“I don’t think anyone expected it to take five or six years for a child to have an immigration case,” Becerra said, referring to the bottleneck of pending asylum claims. .
The administration was also asked about the deaths of several migrant children in government custody and their care. Becerra responded that, without going into specifics, the children go through medical and health issues.
“As far as these kids are concerned, we treated them like kids. We don’t put them in cages,” Becerra said.
“It’s important for people to recognize that as long as we have a broken immigration system, we will have children crossing our border without an adult and putting them in dangerous circumstances,” Becerra said. Congress has gone about three decades without passing sweeping immigration reform legislation.
The Trump administration has taken children from their parents at the border to prosecute their parents after they entered the country illegally. Thousands of children have been separated, leading to a class action lawsuit. The Biden administration still has a task force in place to reunite children with their parents or family. In a May report, the task force said it had reunited 705 children.
On border enforcement, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the administration has “put in place new legal avenues, and we’ve seen and inflicted consequences for those who don’t. not prevail, and we’ve seen a 70% drop in encounters at our southern border.”
The Biden administration recently announced a family reunification parole process to allow more eligible Colombian, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran nationals with U.S. citizens or legal resident family members to join their families in the United States. United.
Yet the restrictive immigration policies of several states have exacerbated the lack of progress on immigration reform and attempts to provide legal avenues for more noncitizens who are currently in the United States.
Florida’s recently signed immigration law imposes strict restrictions to deter the employment of undocumented workers, requiring companies with more than 25 employees to use a government system called E-Verify that verifies immigration status or citizenship of an employee or applicant. This has already led some workers, mostly Latinos, to leave the state.
The ramifications around these laws are set against the backdrop of “a completely broken immigration system,” Mayorkas said.
If you only employ agricultural workers with legal immigration status, Mayorkas said, “I don’t know how we put food on the table.”
Immigration is a key campaign issue, especially among Republicans who blame the Biden administration for past spikes in the number of people arriving at the border.
Isabella Casillas Guzman, a member of the Biden cabinet and administrator of the US Small Business Administration, said the SBA has expanded centers across the country from 1,200 to 1,600 to provide advice to small businesses, including on workforce challenges.
Asked about findings that millions of Covid relief funds were used fraudulently, Guzman said 86% of estimated fraudulent funds were disbursed under the Trump administration in 2020 because decisions were “made that sacrificed the certainty at speed”.
Guzman said 1 in 6 small businesses is started by a Latino and touted “record” Latin American unemployment. “Bidenomics works,” she said.
About a year before the presidential election, Guzman, Mayorkas and Becerra were keen to stress the importance of Biden’s diverse cabinet; Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who was not present, is also Latino.
“We need to continue to have a Cabinet that looks like America,” Becerra said. “The difference we make has a different flavor.”
This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com