The U.S.-Mexico border isn’t open, but a migrant surge and a mishmash of messages and policies have created another crisis
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A disoriented-looking Honduran man clutched the arm of his 8-year-old daughter as though someone would snatch her away—and that was a good possibility. Local cartels have eyes everywhere at the border between Reynosa, Mexico, and McAllen, Texas. But the man didn’t even know where he was.
They had crossed the border into the United States somewhere else the day before. By next morning, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials had expelled them to Reynosa under a pandemic-era public health statute called Title 42. I saw them climb out of a white CBP van with about 10 other migrants from Central America and Mexico, then wander from the international bridge to a busy intersection.
“This is Reynosa,” a woman warned him when she saw him standing still, looking lost: “Es muy peligroso. You can’t just stand around here.” The man nodded and gripped his daughter’s arm tighter. The girl leaned on the crook of his arm, her hazel eyes fluttering with fatigue. She wore a Minnie Mouse sweatshirt and pink shoes. The father wore a blue button-down shirt and jeans. They carried nothing else.
The father, who declined to give his name, said he lost his job and couldn’t feed his family after two hurricanes hit Honduras and Guatemala. The pandemic destroyed an already tattered economy, and organized crime ravaged his neighborhood. Friends told him to seek asylum in the United States: “Now’s the time to go,” they urged, saying President Joe Biden had opened the border. So the man left. The only way to survive, he thought, was to find employment in the United States and send money back home. He and his daughter traveled by bus to the U.S.-Mexican border to seek asylum.
But his friends were wrong: The border is not open.
So on this day in late March, they stood dazed, staring at a cartel-ridden city in a foreign country, without money to return home. “I’m asking God what to do,” the father said, raising his eyes to the sky. A block away at a small public park, about 200 migrants lay on mats fashioned out of filthy blankets and scrunched-up jackets—all homeless and penniless after being expelled within the last several weeks.
When the Trump administration ended, the Biden administration stepped in promising a more compassionate border enforcement. But the reality at the border has not changed much. Though Biden has unwound some of former President Donald Trump’s hard-line border policies—most notably the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), sometimes known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy—he has turned away most migrants by keeping Title 42. While mixed messages prompt new waves of migrants to head for the U.S. border, a backlogged and broken immigration system keeps many of them waiting in border camps or crude U.S. facilities.
THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION first cited Title 42 in March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19, and it effectively rendered the asylum system inaccessible. Under Title 42, border officials have expelled more than 350,000 migrants and asylum-seekers at the southern border, including about 16,000 unaccompanied children, without asylum interviews. On Nov. 18, 2020, a district court order blocked Trump officials from expelling unaccompanied children. Biden officials have allowed unaccompanied minors in for humanitarian reasons but have otherwise continued expelling the majority of people crossing the border, including asylum-seekers and families such as that Honduran man and his 8-year-old daughter.
After a brief lull during the pandemic, the number of CBP encounters at the southwest border has steadily increased since last summer. Then it spiked from 78,442 to 100,441 between January and February. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned in a statement that the United States is “on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.”
A surge in border apprehensions is neither unexpected nor unprecedented. The CBP usually sees seasonal spikes in the spring, and the number of unauthorized migrants released into the United States, including unaccompanied minors, is still lower than in 2014, 2016, and 2019. The statistics on encounters can also be deceiving: They include counts of the same individuals attempting to cross multiple times. Because Title 42 rapidly expels individuals with fewer penalties, more people have tried crossing the border again and again after expulsion. Single adults made up about 71 percent of the southwest border apprehensions in February.
The new problem is the spike in unaccompanied minors crossing the border when the government doesn’t have the capacity to house them all, partly due to pandemic restrictions. In January, border agents encountered 5,694 unaccompanied children at the southwest border. That number shot up to 9,297 in February. About 75 percent of these children are ages 15 to 17, but some of them are 6 or younger. Federal law only allows them to spend 72 hours in Border Patrol facilities, which were never equipped to hold children. But a CBP senior official said the average migrant is spending about 90 hours there in overcrowded conditions. As of April 5, about 4,700 unaccompanied children were being held in Border Patrol facilities and another 14,300 in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) facilities and other makeshift shelters.
Many Republican leaders flew down to the border to film themselves blaming Biden’s “open border” policies for the border crisis. They say halting MPP lights a “welcome sign” at the border. But progressive Democrats are equally displeased with Biden: They point out he should have been better prepared to handle the thousands of unaccompanied children. They’re also upset that he’s still expelling asylum-seekers under Title 42.
Immigration experts say what we’re seeing is a crisis that’s years in the making. Historically, the vast majority of unauthorized border crossers have been single adults from Mexico. In the last several years, a growing population crossing the border are asylum-seeking families and children fleeing extreme poverty and violence in Central America (and now increasingly from southern Mexico).
Instead of addressing these larger, long-term forces, the Trump administration relied on policies like MPP and family separation to deter people from entering the United States. Since early 2019, Trump officials forced more than 71,000 asylum-seekers to await their cases in Mexico under MPP, which immigration experts and advocates say created a humanitarian mess and logistical chaos at the border.
WHILE TRUMP WAS CLEAR about his anti-immigration stance, Biden’s messaging has been wishy-washy. He campaigned on ending Trump-era immigration policies, but Biden has since backtracked as his team struggles to tamp the migration flow to the border. From the start, White House officials have warned hopeful migrants not to leave their country. By mid-March, White House southern border coordinator Roberta Jacobson announced a clearer message: “The message isn’t, ‘Don’t come now,’ it’s, ‘Don’t come in this way, ever.’ The way to come to the United States is through legal pathways.”
That’s not what people are hearing in their hometowns. Amalia Perez Perez, a 35-year-old indigenous farmer from Chiapas, an impoverished southeastern Mexican state, arrived at the Matamoros-Brownsville border seeking asylum in early March with her husband and three children. She told me she heard on local broadcast news that the Biden administration was “letting in people like us.” The news probably meant MPP enrollees, but Perez misunderstood that Biden had opened doors to all asylum-seekers.
At the time, local political groups were warring one another and threatening farmers in her community. Perez feared mostly for her 17-year-old son, because these groups often forcibly recruit teenage boys. So in January, Perez’s family packed up and traveled north, only to discover that the border was closed.
Now they’re staying at a church shelter in Matamoros, Mexico, uncertain of where to go. Perez says they cannot go back to Chiapas, and they feel unsafe anywhere in Mexico, where organized crime groups are well connected everywhere. When she and her husband discuss their future, “I get very sad and stressed,” Perez told me: “The only thing we can do is pray that the Lord will touch the heart of Biden and let us in.”
Such misinformation travels swiftly through word of mouth and only benefits smugglers and cartels all too happy to fuel and capitalize on it. Their victims are migrants themselves. Wendy Marta, a 26-year-old woman who’s five months pregnant, said she left Honduras two months ago with her 6-year-old daughter and her 40-year-old mother. The father of her children had recently abandoned her, and she was afraid of threats of violence in her hometown. “We heard the border is open,” Marta told me.
Her family crossed the border about a month ago, but U.S. officials expelled them into Reynosa. When I met them, they had been sleeping outdoors by the bridge for weeks, with two backpacks and no shoes. When the Mexican police kicked them out, they moved to a public park nearby. Like the infamous migrant camp that burgeoned to about 2,500 homeless asylum-seekers in Matamoros, that park in Reynosa is becoming a makeshift campsite for expelled migrants like Marta, many of them families with young children. And it’s about to get worse.
BESIDES THE CHALLENGES at the border itself, the U.S. also faces the longer-term challenges of fixing a gutted asylum system and unclogging immigration courts, which have more than two years’ worth of backlogged cases. Some asylum-seekers probably won’t qualify for asylum because they’re primarily looking for work, not fleeing persecution.
Biden officials said they will expedite the asylum process so that asylum-seekers can receive a decision in weeks, not years. That means those who are legitimately fleeing violence can find faster relief, while others who came for economic reasons will be swiftly sent back, which may disincentivize others from seeking asylum. Biden’s advisers said they want to create legal pathways to apply for protection in the United States while in other countries, and Biden’s sweeping immigration reform bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, includes ambitious provisions to address the “root causes” of migration.
Leaders from both sides agree that the immigration system is long overdue for comprehensive reform, but the White House’s bill faces a steep hill in Congress, which has focused on piecemeal reforms.
Meanwhile, the situation at the border is grim: Mexican border towns are still filled with desperate people seeking any means of survival. Erick Maradiaga, a 34-year-old asylum-seeker, said he fled Honduras after receiving death threats from cartels. It took him two weeks to convince his 12-year-old son to cross the border alone with his 13-year-old daughter. The boy cried, “But what if you die here? What if I never see you again?”
By then, Maradiaga and his children had been living in a tent at the makeshift migrant camp in Matamoros for more than six months due to MPP. Each time Maradiaga heard about yet another asylum-seeker being kidnapped or attacked by cartels, or saw bloated corpses floating in the river, he trembled. About half of the migrants at the camp sent their children alone across the border.
It was a chilly Sunday night when his children crossed. He took one last picture of them standing in the dark. The girl wore a bright pink jacket, the boy a black sweatshirt. They both wore brave smiles. Maradiaga watched them cross the international bridge from below at the camp. He couldn’t cry out goodbye, and his kids couldn’t turn around to wave at him, knowing authorities would turn them back if they knew their father was present.
That was January 2020, the last time Maradiaga saw his children in person. They reunited with their mother in Kansas City, Mo. She had crossed the border first with another 4-year-old son in March 2019, just before the Trump administration expanded MPP across the entire southern border. Today, Maradiaga is still stuck in Mexico by himself. As he talked about his family, his eyes began dripping, and he wept silently for a few minutes. Before, he used to pray that God would change Trump’s heart. Now, he prays for Biden’s heart.
Who’s getting in?
Currently, immigration officials are releasing only three categories of migrant populations into the U.S.: unaccompanied migrant children under the age of 18; asylum-seekers enrolled under MPP, whom the Biden administration is allowing into the U.S. in gradual trickles; and some families with children under age 7 who crossed in certain areas.
Due to a new child protection law, Mexican authorities in the Tamaulipas state (which borders the Rio Grande Valley) are refusing to accept families with young children. The Biden administration is flying many such families to other sectors in El Paso and San Diego, expelling about 100 people a day to Mexico from there. But according to a CBP official, the majority of families with young children are being released to sponsors in the U.S., a policy some call “catch and release.”
Even some Democrats in border communities are criticizing that policy: “When you create a system that incentivizes people to come across, and they are released, that immediately sends a message to Central America that if you come across you can stay,” Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, whose South Texas district sits near the border with Mexico, told The Washington Post.
Biden officials said they’re working with Mexico to expand their capacity to accept these families. —S.L.