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WASHINGTON - U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday he would not apologize for rolling back immigration policies of his Republican predecessor that undermined "human dignity" and brushed off criticism that migrants were making the journey to the southern border because they perceived him to be a "nice guy."
Speaking at his first White House news conference, Biden sought to defend his handling of rising migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. While he mostly struck an empathetic tone, he said the United States was expelling the vast majority of migrants, including families, under a COVID-19 public health order.
The Trump-era order allows border agents to rapidly expel migrants without giving them a chance to claim asylum, but it has angered civil rights groups, who say it is illegal.
The number of migrants caught at the border has climbed sharply in recent weeks, thrusting Biden into an emerging humanitarian and political crisis a little more than two months after he took office.
The migrants include a rising number of unaccompanied minors, who have not been subject to the pandemic-related expulsion policy. As of Tuesday, nearly 5,000 children were backed up in crowded border stations awaiting transfers to overwhelmed federal shelters.
Biden said he would not leave children stranded at the border.
"I make no apologies for ending programs that did not exist before Trump became president that have an incredibly negative impact on the law, international law, as well as on human dignity," he said.
U.S. Border Patrol caught roughly 100,000 migrants at the border in February, the highest monthly level since a spike in mid-2019. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said last week that border crossings are on pace for the highest level in 20 years.
A senior Biden administration official on Thursday forecast that numbers would likely rise during "spring caravans" and said the government planned to "go after" smuggling organizations that were manipulating migrants.
Smugglers told Reuters this month that they had been encouraging parents to send their children alone as a result of the shift in U.S. policy since Biden took charge.
Republican opponents say Biden, a Democrat, encouraged more migrants to cross illegally when he rolled back some of Trump's restrictive policies.
"It turns out when politicians spend a two-year campaign advertising a porous border and amnesty, people listen," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted.
During the news conference, Biden said his government was in talks with Mexico to encourage Mexican authorities to take back more migrant families, many of whom are fleeing violence and poverty in Central America.
Asked for clarification on Biden's comment at a briefing to reporters, White House officials did not cite any specific progress but said the two countries were working together on the issue.