WASHINGTON – As migrants emerge on the U.S.-Mexico border, the government of President Joe Biden is hot on the heels and seeks to tackle a humanitarian and political challenge that threatens to overshadow its ambitious agenda.

Government officials say Biden inherited an untenable situation resulting from President Donald Trump’s undermining and weakening of the immigration system.

But with Congress transitioning to incorporate immigration laws, images and stories from the border dominate the headlines and detract from the White House’s efforts to promote the recently passed $ 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.

The White House posted Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on four Sunday news broadcasts to emphasize that it was working to get things under control.

“Our message was straightforward – the border is closed,” said Mayorkas. “We evict families. We expel single adults. And we have decided not to exclude young, vulnerable children. “

The White House has steadfastly refused to label the situation a “crisis,” leading to a battle in Washington over how to properly describe the tense situation. Professional immigration officials had warned the spike could come after the November election and news that Trump’s tough policies were being reversed.

In the early days of his tenure, Biden reversed some of Trump’s actions, a rollback that has been interpreted by some as a signal for a trip to the United States. While the new government worked on immigration legislation to address long-term issues, it had no local plan to deal with a surge in migrants.

“We have seen a large number of migrations in the past. We know how to go about it. We have a plan. We are implementing our plan and we will be successful, ”said Mayorkas. But, he added, “it takes time” and is “particularly challenging and difficult now” because of the steps taken by the Trump administration. “So we’re rebuilding the system to meet the needs of vulnerable children who have reached our limits.”

Biden officials have scrapped the images of “children in cages” that defined the Trump family’s separation policy, but struggled with creating the capacity to cope with the surge. Unaccompanied children and young people who are in customs and border protection custody must be brought into the care of the health and social services within three days, although the minors who are coming now will be detained longer than this time.

Officials are trying to build capacity to care for around 14,000 migrants who are currently in federal detention – and more on the way. Critics say the administration should have been better prepared.

“I didn’t see a plan,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas. “You started a humanitarian crisis down here on this border that you have just seen. And the reason they come is because he says words matter and they do. The message is that if you want to come you can stay. “

The administration has also been urged why the media will not be allowed to see the facilities at the border. Mayorkas said the government was “working to provide access so individuals can see what the conditions are like at a border patrol station.”

Since Biden’s inauguration on January 20, the number of people border officials encounter has increased dramatically in the United States. In February, 18,945 family members and 9,297 unaccompanied children were found – up 168% and 63%, respectively, from the previous month, according to the Pew Research Center. This represents an enormous logistical challenge, as children in particular need higher standards for care and coordination between the agencies.

Reasons for the surge include: thousands of Central American migrants stuck on the border for months and the ongoing scourge of gang violence in the Northern Triangle countries – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Still, encounters with unaccompanied minors and families are lower than at various times during the Trump administration, including spring 2019.

Migrant children are sent from border cells to other government institutions until they are released to a sponsor. This process was slowed significantly by a Trump administration’s “reinforced scrutiny” policy that sent details to immigration officials and arrested some sponsors, causing some to fear child deportation. Biden has reversed that policy, so immigration officials hope the process will now speed up.

The White House also cites Biden’s decision to use the Federal Emergency Management Agency to aid efforts to process the growing number of unaccompanied migrant children on the border.

Mayorkas appeared on Fox News Sunday, ABC’s This Week, CNN’s State of the Union, and NBC’s Meet the Press, while McCaul was on ABC.

Jonathan Lemire, The Associated Press