Immigration in flux
Confusion reigns at the border as the Biden administration rolls out changes
When President Joe Biden took initial steps to ease immigration restrictions, Frieda Adams described a “collective exhale” among ministries helping asylum-seekers and migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border in Las Cruces, N.M. Adams, a former Southern Baptist missionary of 20 years, organizes a coalition of churches and nongovernmental organizations in New Mexico that work with Border Patrol to care for migrants who have crossed the border and are released into the United States.
“The biggest thing I can say that changed is we can breathe,” Adams said. “We felt this tension of the inability of people who are really suffering to be able to … legally as they have a right to under international law, to approach our border, to plead their case, and have their case adjudicated justly.”
But some leaders are holding their breath in anticipation of a wave of migration that could tax already strained public resources.
“You just can’t say, ‘Yeah, yeah, let everybody in’ because then we’re affected down there at the border,” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told Axios. His district includes a large swatch of borderland in southern Texas.
Along the border, confusion is mounting as the status of many migrants remains in limbo, while others who just arrived have been let into the United States. During Biden’s first days in office, he halted construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, ended a travel ban restricting people from 14 majority Muslim countries, and reaffirmed ongoing protection for those in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program. The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated a slow rollback of other immigration restrictions, with the new president directing agencies to explore solutions to the stickiest issues in a broken immigration system.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Monday blamed the previous administration for the issues facing Biden now: “Quite frankly, the entire system was gutted. … We need individuals to wait. And I will say that they will wait with a goal in mind.”
Biden also paused deportations for the first 100 days of his presidency. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton challenged the order on Jan. 22, and a federal judge has put it on hold indefinitely.
On Jan. 23, Biden unveiled a sweeping immigration proposal. It included nothing on improving border security but called for creating a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants who have already entered the United States illegally. On Feb. 7, the administration shifted priority to deporting illegal immigrants who represent a national security risk or have committed violent crimes as opposed to petty and nonviolent offenses.
Biden has also directed his administration to review the Migrant Protection Protocols, which are keeping about 25,000 asylum-seekers waiting south of the border for their court dates. In some extreme cases, such as migrants who are gravely ill, agents at the border have allowed asylum-seekers to enter the United States instead of waiting in Mexico. When asked for comment, Customs and Border Patrol said information about how many migrants it has paroled into the United States was unavailable.
Prioritizing processing and housing asylum seekers will be a challenge since the Trump administration concentrated resources toward fortifying the border. Hannah Vickner Hough, director of national immigration programs with World Relief, said the Biden administration will need to redirect resources to reach its goals.
“The agencies along the border were really well equipped for deterrence purposes,” said Hough. “The resources for affirmatively processing asylum claims … exist only minimally.”
The churches that Adams works with in the Las Cruces, N.M., area have not hosted migrants since the fall of 2019, largely because of the Migrant Protection Protocols. Adams talks to people who work in shelters in Mexico, who describe a troubled and unsafe atmosphere. “Some of these have waited the whole two years” that Migrant Protection Protocols have been in place, she said. “Life has been hard. People get sick and people and their families have died.”
Not all asylum seekers and migrants have chosen to wait. The number of unaccompanied immigrant minors arriving at the border surged from 1,530 in October to 3,364 in December. In response, the Office of Refugee Resettlement reopened a controversial facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, that can house up to 700 children. The move came under fire from some because the shelter does not meet state licensing requirements.
In the week ending March 1, the Border Patrol referred to HHS custody an average of 321 children per day, Axios reported Thursday. That’s up from 47 per day in January. Axios also cited documents showing the shelters for those child migrants are at 94 percent capacity.
Prominent Republicans said Biden’s approach will exacerbate issues at the border.
“The refusal to continue building the border wall and changing Trump asylum policies requiring migrants to wait in Mexico for their court date are formulas for disaster and will create massive future runs on the border,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., predicted. “The caravans will start to flow again, and America will be under siege once again by new waves of migrants responding to the Biden Administration’s weak policies on immigration.”
Adams is in private Facebook group messages with shelter workers and migrants in the camps. She said many people are urging their fellow migrants to wait to see Biden’s immigration policies before deciding whether to cross the border. “What’s been amazing is to watch them tell each other, be patient. It’s coming,” she said. “They have had so much adversity and yet they still believe there is hope on the other side of the border.”
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