By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government will be "more aggressive" in telling migrants not to come to the United States, a top U.S. official said on Thursday, after earlier warnings failed to stem the flow of thousands of Central Americans to the U.S.-Mexico border.
"The message isn't, 'Don't come now,' it's, 'Don't come in this way, ever,'" Roberta Jacobson, the White House's southern border coordinator, told Reuters in an interview. "The way to come to the United States is through legal pathways."
The Biden administration is wrestling with a growing humanitarian crisis at the southern U.S. border, where an uptick in the number of migrants fleeing violence, natural disasters and economic hardship in Central America is testing President Joe Biden's commitment to a more humane immigration policy.
Biden's promise to end former President Donald Trump's hardline immigration policies has been complicated by a recent spike in the number of migrants crossing the border illegally. U.S. officials are struggling to house and process an increasing number of unaccompanied children, many of whom have been stuck in jail-like border stations for days while they await placement in overwhelmed government-run shelters.
The Biden administration's message to would-be migrants has become stricter in recent days amid intense criticism from opposition Republicans that Biden's relaxation of some of Trump's policies has encouraged people to come to the United States.
Biden officials initially said migrants should not come to the United States now, but that they could come later. In an interview with ABC on Tuesday, Biden took a firmer stance, telling migrants "don't come" and that they would soon be able to "apply for asylum in place."
Jacobson echoed that tougher tone on Thursday, stressing that the policy of the United States was to expel migrants trying to cross the border illegally, with the exception of unaccompanied children. But she acknowledged that as a U.S. official her warnings might be lost amid the deception of people smugglers who are telling migrants the border is open.
She said the United States would step up its messaging effort, using social media, radio and non-governmental organizations in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to urge migrants not to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border.
"We're going to be more aggressive, more agile about getting our message out, we're going to try and combat the smugglers' messages and make sure that people understand the truth," she said.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said that effort was underway and included radio outreach in Guatemalan indigenous languages.
U.S. border authorities caught roughly 100,000 migrants at the border with Mexico in February, the highest monthly total since mid-2019. Roughly 4,500 children were being held in border facilities as of Thursday, an administration official said during a call with reporters, a slight increase from Sunday.
While Biden officials have said migrant families will be "expelled" to Mexico or their home countries under a Trump-era health order known as Title 42, more than half of the 19,000 family members caught at the border in February were not expelled, with many released into the United States.
Jacobson said the expulsions were limited last month by a lack of capacity in Mexico to receive them.
"Those numbers are going to change, frankly, from week to week, but the policy is that families will be expelled," she said.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Ross Colvin)