THE FIRST thing one sees after crossing the bridge from Reynosa, in Mexico, into Texas is a large white sign with bright red letters that spell out “BINGO”. It is meant as an advertisement for a hall where people can play the game. But it also serves as a reminder of the long odds and random luck that lie in store for those making their way to America.
Hoping fortune may be on their side now that a pro-immigrant president occupies the White House, a rising number of migrants are arriving. From last October through February, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which is charged with guarding America’s borders, had around 400,000 encounters along the south-western border. That is nearly double the figure for the same period in 2019-20 and the highest number during those months since 2006. (The figures from 2019-20 include people who were quickly expelled by a public-health order and tried to cross the border multiple times.) The Biden administration expects border crossings to hit levels not seen for 20 years.
Many who make the treacherous crossing are not seen or apprehended by CBP. Matt Robinson, the head of security for the East Foundation, a not-for-profit outfit that manages 215,000 acres of ranchland in South Texas (an area roughly the size of New York City), reckons he is seeing ten to 20 times more migrants illegally crossing the foundation’s land than last autumn. The situation has “changed so fast, and is so upside down, I don’t know if there’s any guardrails,” says Urbino “Benny” Martinez, the sheriff of Brooks County, which is 70 miles north of the border, and has the morbid distinction of being a hotspot for migrant deaths due to dehydration.
Complicating the high numbers is the vulnerability of those who are arriving. From last October through February, some 30,000 children under the age of 18 have presented themselves at the border without a parent. The government has projected that there could be a record 120,000 unaccompanied minors arriving this year, 54% more than the previous peak in 2019. President Joe Biden’s administration has chosen to let these vulnerable kids in, setting off a scramble to find beds in facilities that are not child-friendly and where capacity is already stretched by the pandemic. On March 13th the Biden administration announced that it was deploying the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Mexican border to help.
Even with swift action, the situation poses a huge challenge for Mr Biden. The president is grappling with how to embrace a more humane immigration policy than his predecessor’s without encouraging people to rush the border, which could overwhelm the system and distract from his ability to reform the country’s immigration policies.
America has dealt with spikes in illegal immigration before (see chart), often due to forces beyond a new president’s control. “There was always going to be a surge because of a backlog under Trump,” says Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union. Mr Trump made 1,000 changes to the immigration system during his presidency, many of which made it much harder to enter America illegally or seek asylum. Last year he in effect sealed the border from new entrants by invoking “Title 42”, a public-health order that authorised the rapid expulsion of all border-crossers and asylum-seekers due to concerns about covid-19. This has resulted in pent-up demand.
In addition, violence, poverty, instability and a pair of hurricanes last year have pushed people out of the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—especially families, who are heading to the United States and trying to claim asylum. Hit by job losses in a contracting economy, more Mexicans are trying their luck, too.
The grim reality of countries to the south of the United States may not be in Mr Biden’s control, but his messaging is. Some of his actions have given the impression that America does not intend to enforce its immigration laws and will prioritise penitence for Donald Trump’s nativist policies over border security. For example, in January, the Biden administration ordered a 100-day halt to deportations of illegal immigrants already in America. (This was scuttled by a lawsuit from the state of Texas and a court ruling.)
“We’ve thrown open the border by rumour,” says Neal Wilkins, who runs the East Foundation. Smugglers, who charge desperate migrants to ferry and guide them into America, are using the change of administration to drum up business. Sister Norma Pimentel, who heads the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and interacts with many of the arriving families, says “organised crime” is to blame for spreading the message that now is the time to come. From Central America, people pay smugglers around $10,000, which includes a “coyote” guiding them through harsh terrain and three tries, if they get apprehended or turned away by border patrol on their first two attempts. Many families are hoping to turn themselves in at the border to start the asylum process.
Two of Mr Biden’s recent policy changes have also fuelled rumours that it is easier to enter the country. First, he has terminated a Trump-era programme called “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP), colloquially known as “remain in Mexico”, under which people seeking entry to America are kept south of the border while they await their immigration proceedings. Recently hundreds of migrants who have been living in a squalid camp in Matamoros, Mexico, without running water and electricity have been brought to the United States and released pending their immigration proceedings. But there are still more than 20,000 people in Mexico under MPP who will soon be allowed to enter and remain in the United States while their immigration cases proceed.
Second, Mr Biden’s administration still has Title 42 in place and therefore can expel most border-crossers immediately, but it has chosen to accept unaccompanied minors, regardless of whether they qualify for asylum or other special consideration. This is having the unintended consequence of some families sending their children ahead to America without them, because it is their likeliest shot at gaining entry. Having railed against the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in family separation, Mr Biden is in the peculiar situation of watching some families voluntarily separate to get their children into the United States.
In recent weeks, more families have also been processed and released in America due to a decision by the Mexican government to stop accepting back families with young children that CBP tried to expel under Title 42. So far the eastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas is the only one implementing this policy. It means that families with children six years and younger suddenly have a way in. Pending negative covid-19 tests, they are being processed and released into the Rio Grande Valley without needing to make a claim for asylum, whereas families who have seven-year-olds or older kids are in effect barred. Those who test positive are being put up at hotels to quarantine.
Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley is helping around 700 new families every day at its shelter in McAllen, opposite the bus station. Your correspondent was there as a dozen new arrivals were dropped off by border patrol. All had young children, some only a couple of months old. As more families and unaccompanied minors gain entry to the United States, news is swirling that America’s borders are opening, encouraging others to come. Unaccompanied minors may be getting the most attention in news headlines, but the bigger issue is with families coming to the border before America is prepared and equipped to process them en masse, says Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a think-tank in Washington, dc. “By sheer numbers, there’s a lot more parents with children than unaccompanied minors,” he says.
The system is already buckling. Border facilities and processes were designed when single people, mostly Mexican men, were trying to cross over the border to find work. In the past decade there have been three demographic shifts among border-crossers: from Mexican to Central Americans, from single people to families and children, and from those who need no humanitarian protection to those asking for asylum. Although asylum-seekers on the southern border may be fleeing desperate circumstances, most will not meet the standard for being granted asylum. But if they pass an interview proving “credible fear”, people are often released into the United States while their cases are pending.
The overburdened immigration-court system, however, now has 1.3m cases, about two-and-a-half times the number when Mr Trump assumed office. Resolution takes years, and most migrants disappear into their communities while they wait. The Department of Homeland Security did an analysis of people it encountered between 2014 and 2019. Among those from the Northern Triangle, 28% were repatriated by early 2020. Yet the department has no record of departure for the other 72%. With only 8% being granted some sort of relief from removal, the others are either still awaiting judgments or have decided to stay indefinitely even though they are not legally permitted to do so.
Much of the burden for helping migrants who arrive in America has traditionally fallen on non-profit groups, especially during the last surge in 2019 under President Trump. But covid-19 is presenting overstretched charities with additional challenges. “This time around we’re finding it a lot more difficult, because we don’t have volunteers,” says Ms Pimentel of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. We’re running short of hands to make it right.” The United Way of El Paso County recently asked 100 past volunteers to help, but only six said they were comfortable enough to accept, says Christina Lamour, vice-president of community impact.
What happens on the border does not stay on the border. “Even 80 miles away from the border, people are affected,” says Susan Kibbe of the South Texans’ Property Rights Association. Some ranchers are afraid to go to parts of their land, she says, after being threatened by smugglers and cartel members. To deal with the recent influx of migrants at the border, agents who used to patrol farther north have been pulled down south. On the 90-minute drive from Raymondville to Hebronville in the Rio Grande Valley, usually one would see ten border patrol officers and six officers from Texas’s Department of Public Safety, reckons Mr Robinson of the East Foundation. When your correspondent and he did the drive, they saw none. On any given day there could be 100 migrants hiding in the brush in Brooks County, says Mr Martinez, the sheriff, but 60-70% of border patrol from the county got pulled to the border itself, leaving no one to do brushwork.
The border is a clear national-security issue. Will Hurd, a former congressman, says that intelligence organisations should make dismantling human smuggling in Central America more of a priority. It is not just Mexicans and Central Americans who arrive through the southern border but others from Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere, seeking to enter undetected. So far this month CBP has intercepted at least three groups of more than 100 migrants each, including nine Romanians. In addition to people, smugglers ferry drugs across the border. The more migrants overwhelm the system, the more this distracts from the task of cracking down on drugs. Between October and February, seizures of fentanyl have risen by around 360% from a year ago.
Confusion about current border policy is rife—perhaps partly because Mr Biden has yet to nominate permanent heads of CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. One law-enforcement official asked your correspondent whether Title 42 was still in effect. There are conflicting rumours about whether it was the United States or Mexico that decided not to send back families with young children.
Bad communication is also to blame. Hugo Zurita, who runs Good Neighbour Settlement House, a non-profit in Brownsville, says there needs to be “more communication with dc and local officials. I’m not saying we need to know every detail, but we need to know what’s going to happen.” Studying conditions at the border first-hand would surely help. “The big problem we continue to have with government is they never seem to get down on the ground and talk to people who are here on the front lines who live and work in the community,” says Dennis Nixon, the boss of IBC, a bank, in Laredo, Texas.
Mr Biden has already ordered a review of various immigration policies, from the asylum system to how to reunify families separated under Mr Trump. But he does not have much time. Already immigrant-rights groups, finding themselves with more sway than they have had in years, are agitating to end Trump-tainted Title 42. But “if they were to lift that, you’d see the system overwhelmed even more,” says Theresa Cardinal Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Centre, a think-tank. “Right now Title 42 is the only thing that is buying the administration time to put in place the immigration system it wants.” There is talk of creating reception facilities that are not just for detention, so migrants can find out more about the asylum process and get information, like some European countries have designed for refugees. “You can rely on the shelters and non-profits for only so long,” says Ms Brown.
In the coming months, Mr Biden will find himself sandwiched between two pugnacious, opposing forces. One is the left flank of his own party, which has become more extreme on the subject of illegal immigration, staking out positions such as abolishing us Customs, Immigration and Enforcement and never detaining unaccompanied minors. The other is Republicans, who have already signalled that they intend to use the border as a wedge issue to take back Congress in the 2022 mid-term elections. Unless Mr Biden can show that he is successfully grappling with the surge of migrants and reining in his own party, the border could cost Democrats seats, much as the “defund the police” stance did in 2020.
The border troubles also pose a threat to Mr Biden’s own agenda. He wants to shepherd through comprehensive immigration reform, offering illegal immigrants already in the United States a path to legal status, and supports giving “Dreamers”, who were brought to America as young children, permanent legal status. But those prospects dim as the surge of migrants grows. “Anything we’re trying to get passed connected with immigration is potentially at greater risk, depending on current conditions at the border,” says Woody Hunt, a Texan businessman, who, along with a group of business leaders, supports offering permanent status to Dreamers. For Mr Biden, the southern border is quickly becoming a moral and political nightmare. ■