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Year in Review: Reckoning with ineffective policies

In 2023, states sought better solutions for immigration and homelessness while drug overdose deaths spiraled out of control

Migrants coming from Mexico into the United States pass under concertina wire along the banks of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay

Year in Review: Reckoning with ineffective policies

Chaos at the U.S.-Mexico border, sprawling homeless encampments, and out-of-control drug overdose deaths—last year’s big stories continued to dominate headlines in 2023. State and local leaders pushed back against ineffective approaches to immigration turmoil and homelessness under pressure from disgruntled affected residents and businesses. Deadly new drugs infiltrated the fentanyl supply, making the synthetic opioid even more dangerous. The men and women doing the quiet, faithful work of effective compassion didn’t often make the headlines, but ministries in local communities remained focused on life transformation despite rehashed policy debates and few governmental changes. Here’s a review of this year’s notable stories from the Compassion beat:

The end of Title 42

The pandemic-era policy allowed U.S. government officials to quickly turn some immigrants back across the U.S-Mexico border, though it didn’t prevent record-high illegal crossings in 2022 and early 2023. Title 42 expired when the COVID-19 health emergency ended in May, and the Biden administration prepared for an expected influx of illegal immigrants afterward. For example, back in January, President Joe Biden created a pathway for up to 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans to enter the United States each month and stay temporarily on humanitarian parole. He also directed asylum hopefuls at the border to make appointments using a government app at ports of entry. But despite the forecasted post–Title 42 surge, illegal entries immediately dropped. The White House took credit for the lull, but as smugglers and immigrants adapted to the new policies, border communities experienced a new influx. When fiscal year 2023 ended on Sept. 30, illegal encounters at the border topped 2.5 million for the year.

The crisis creeps inland

The hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers did not stay in border communities for long. New York City Democratic Mayor Eric Adams declared America’s largest sanctuary city overrun with immigrants seeking asylum bused from border communities in Texas. Adams visited Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia, urging prospective immigrants not to come. As of October, more than 120,000 migrants had inundated the Big Apple, many staying in the city’s homeless shelters. Leaders in Chicago and other Democratic-run cities voiced similar concerns. In response to growing frustration, the Biden administration sped up work permits for asylum-seekers but did little to stem the flow of new arrivals. Homeless ministries and churches rallied to accommodate the new arrivals.

States push back

Texas expanded its border security initiative, Operation Lone Star, erecting a string of large buoys in the Rio Grande and miles of razor wire and anti-climb fences. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott also signed controversial legislation allowing state and local law enforcement officers to bring illegal immigrants before local judges who can charge the offenders with a misdemeanor if they do not return to Mexico. Civil rights groups and the U.S. Department of Justice challenged these initiatives in federal court, arguing states do not have the authority to create immigration policies. In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a crackdown on illegal immigration. Arizona Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs ordered National Guard troops to the border when illegal immigrants overwhelmed a remote desert port of entry.

Immigration stories to watch 

More Asian and African immigrants began showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border this year, signaling a demographic shift. Congress adjourned for the holidays without passing the immigration reform Republicans demanded in exchange for additional funds for Ukraine’s war effort against Russia. Lawmakers in Washington have been negotiating increased asylum restrictions and limits on the president’s use of humanitarian parole, which states are challenging in federal court.

Deadly highs 

Cities and counties across the country reported an uptick in xylazine-related overdose deaths this year. Dealers are increasingly mixing the veterinary tranquilizer with the fentanyl supply. The combination is part of a larger trend toward polysubstance use, which occurs when drug users consume combinations of drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl, which together don’t respond well to anti-overdose medications. The harm reduction strategy of treating addiction continued to grow in popularity, but some states began walking back drug decriminalization, instituting harsher penalties for possession. Christian rehabilitation programs weren’t immune from the debate, which exposed divides between programs that promote an abstinence-based approach and those that believe synthetic opioid medications should play a role in treatment. States received their first round of payments from opioid lawsuit settlements toward the end of the year, and government officials are debating which recovery approaches to fund heading into 2024.

Homeless spike

Homelessness climbed 12 percent nationwide in 2023 to the highest level ever reported. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development chalked up the spike to a tight rental market and the end of pandemic assistance, though places where the Housing First approach has dictated policies for years experienced the worst increases.

Encampment battles

The homelessness crisis accelerated on the West Coast, and some liberal cities began sweeping their streets of encampments. In some of those cities, including San Francisco and Phoenix, civil rights groups challenged efforts to move people inside. Two previous legal decisions by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction covers several Western states, require cities to provide sufficient shelter beds before enforcing criminal penalties against public camping. A bipartisan coalition of Democratic governors, Republican lawmakers, advocacy groups, and law enforcement organizations asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the precedent. Amid debates about when officials can force someone inside, local ministries continued the work of life transformation, emphasizing shelter is only a small part of what it takes to get someone off the streets for good.

Specialized police units under fire

Five Memphis, Tenn., police officers beat Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old FedEx worker, for three minutes during a traffic stop on Jan. 7. Nichols died from his injuries three days later. His death reignited criticism of special police units, which critics argue breed police violence and target minority communities. The Memphis Police Department fired the officers and disbanded the special unit of about 40 officers called SCORPION (Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods), which was assigned to crime hotspots in 2021 to crack down on violence in the city. The U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation into the department in July. Memphis may join at least 14 local police departments under federal oversight. Some law enforcement experts raised questions about whether such oversight is an effective approach to changing police culture. 

Getting the vote back 

Minnesota joined 21 other states that allow felons to vote once they’re out of prison. Lawmakers in Nebraska, New Mexico, and Kentucky debated similar measures this year. As of 2022, an estimated 4.6 million Americans cannot vote due to laws that bar former felons from the electoral process.

Effective compassion in orphan care

Season 4 of WORLD’s Effective Compassion podcast explored what’s working in the fight against poverty and how thinking Biblically aids in the care of vulnerable children. In 10 episodes, WORLD reporters highlighted the role of the church and local ministries in providing personal, challenging, and spiritual assistance—help that actually helps.

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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