What’s behind the latest border surge? | WORLD
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What’s behind the latest border surge?

Families make up the majority of the uptick overwhelming Texas cities

Migrants crawl through razor wire to cross into Eagle Pass, Texas on Monday. Getty Images/Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP

What’s behind the latest border surge?

Border crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border typically increase during the autumn months as the blistering Texas summer ends. But Ariel Ruiz Soto, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said seasonal factors have played a smaller role in the record-high flows of the past few years. “Seasonality and migration flows have, in some ways, gone out the window,” he said.

In late spring and early summer, border traffic fell following the end of the pandemic-era no-entry policy, Title 42, in May. But illegal crossings began climbing in July and August, driven in part by record numbers of family units. Experts attribute the jump to large numbers of migrants waiting in Mexican border cities who are now willing to take their chances. The increase is straining processing centers and raising questions about whether the Biden administration’s post–Title 42 policies are lowering crossings.

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden announced a temporary parole program for up to 30,000 Venezuelans, Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Haitians per month. Immigration officials urged asylum-seekers to make appointments at ports of entry using the CBP One app. They warned that immigrants who crossed illegally between ports of entry to make an asylum claim would be deported unless they could prove they had been denied asylum in a third country on the way or qualified for one of the rules’ many exceptions.

Despite lower crossings immediately after the end of Title 42, Mexican and Central American authorities encountered an increasing number of migrants making their way north. But many migrants waited in Mexico while the Biden administration rolled out new policies, said Ruiz Soto.

The U.S. military said it is sending 800 active-duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the uptick in illegal crossings inundating Texas border towns. The soldiers will free up Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers needed in the field by assisting with migrant processing and paperwork. The Department of Homeland Security announced the move last Wednesday, the same day an estimated 3,000 immigrants crossed the Rio Grande near the small Texas border city of Eagle Pass, according to Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber.

A day earlier, Eagle Pass Mayor Rolando Salinas declared a state of emergency for the small town, population 28,596. More than 8,000 immigrants arrived in Eagle Pass last week. CBP temporarily closed down the international railway crossing so that personnel could assist with the increase. Salinas said on Facebook that city leaders will meet with Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens. On Tuesday, the city council approved the state of emergency declaration “unless and until said action is terminated by the city council.”

Elket Rodriguez, a missionary with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said many migrants choose to cross at Eagle Pass because they consider its Mexican sister city, Piedras Negras, one of the safer border towns. But Eagle Pass isn’t the only Texas border city experiencing the surge. “All across the border, the number of migrants trying to get across into the U.S. has grown exponentially,” Rodriguez said.

Border Patrol apprehended 93,108 immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in family groups last month, a record number, according to CBP data. It was the first month since Biden took office that more families crossed the border than single adults. May 2019 held the previous record of 84,486 migrants crossing in family units. The Biden administration ended rapid DNA testing in May, so it is difficult for CBP to determine whether migrants crossing as a family unit are actually biologically related.

The rush of families has overwhelmed CBP’s capacity. Smugglers know this, said Ruiz Soto, and are encouraging migrants to take their chances now. “The Biden administration generally does not detain families for a long period of time,” he said. “Smugglers and migrants are paying close attention to the capacity of the U.S.-Mexico border, and when capacity is at its max, people understand that they may have a higher chance of coming into the United States and being released from custody.”

Long wait times for CBP One appointments may also be contributing to the increase in illegal crossings. Some Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, and Haitians crossing between ports of entry may be unable to find sponsors to qualify for the parole program. Other families crossing illegally already have relatives living in the United States on parole or with Temporary Protected Status, a status granted in the case of humanitarian disaster or violence in an immigrant’s home country. Ruiz Soto said officials are also seeing more Mexican immigrants.

Rodriguez with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship said the influx of families makes humanitarian assistance more difficult. “When you’re talking about a single adult, it’s just one bed,” he said. Now, “you have children, you have vulnerable people.” He told me that pastors serving at the border are at capacity and overwhelmed. In Brownsville, Texas, pastor Carlos Navarro serves around 350 migrants at the city welcome center every day.

Rodriguez told me many of the families are being released into the United States to await their asylum hearings, a process that could take years due to backlogs. To speed up removals, the administration is enrolling some families destined for certain cities in a program called FERM, Family Expedited Removal Management. ICE tracks the heads of households enrolled in FERM with alternatives to detention, such as ankle monitors or a mobile phone app. Families in the program must follow an 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew until their initial asylum screenings, which generally occur within 12 days of their border crossing. Those who do not meet asylum requirements are deported within 30 days of arrival.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, whose district stretches from San Antonio to the Mexico border, urged the Biden administration to increase deportations. “We need to have repercussions at the border,” he said on Fox News Sunday.

“What does that mean? You’ve got to deport people, and you’ve got to show images of people being deported. When was the last time we saw people going the other way instead of just seeing people flow in?” he said.

But instead, the administration is expanding capacity and granting more work permits, said Selene Rodriguez, the assistant director of federal affairs at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. She worries more immigrants will risk the journey when they see their cousin or brother was released from Border Patrol custody to pursue an asylum claim.

“As we continue rewarding people who come over illegally, more people are going to come over,” she said. “More people are going to suffer due to human smuggling and trafficking.” Texas Department of Public Safety troopers found the body of a 3-year old migrant boy who had been swept away by the current in the Rio Grande.

Mexican officials and CBP officials met last week to hammer out a series of actions to “depressurize” Mexico’s northern border cities. Mexico said it will begin deporting waiting immigrants back to their home countries by land and air.

Rodriguez, who is also trained as an immigration attorney, said it’s essential that more immigrants understand what it means to seek asylum before their claims are rejected years after making the journey. “Asylum does not apply to fleeing poverty, loss of opportunities, and generalized violence,” he said. “Harsh country conditions do not necessarily grant you asylum.”

Successful asylees must demonstrate a fear of persecution in their home country because of their race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion. Until these misconceptions are corrected, smugglers continue to urge migrants to take the risk on the basis of false hope, he said.

The flow isn’t stopping anytime soon. Panamanian officials said almost 82,000 people trekked north through the dangerous Darien Gap in August. Many are still on their way.

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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