As he makes his first visit to the border as President on Sunday, Joe Biden is witnessing a human rights crisis unfolding both in his own backyard and Mexico’s.
In El Paso, Texas, migrant families have streamed into the city in recent months, coming from countries devastated by increasing weather catastrophes, unchecked violence and repressive governments. The recent surge has overwhelmed the border city’s resources, prompting Mayor Oscar Leeser to declare a state of emergency last month.
And just across the Rio Grande, temperatures on the streets of Ciudad Juárez have been dropping into the 40s at night—below freezing in the wind—chilling hundreds of migrant families needing shelter while they wait for an opportunity to cross into America. Tens of thousands of people that presented themselves at the border in recent months have been turned back into Mexico without the opportunity to apply for asylum under the use of the pandemic-era Title 42 public health order. Many are still waiting, hoping for the chance to enter the U.S.
Biden’s visit comes at a politically charged moment for the country’s immigration policies, as well as his own political future. He has not yet announced whether he will run for re-election, but is widely expected to do so. Republicans have frequently criticized how Biden has not visited the border during his presidency, using the fact as a way of arguing that he has no interest in taking the border situation seriously.
“The border is President Biden’s greatest vulnerability right after inflation,” says Republican political consultant Whit Ayres, adding, “If you watch Fox News, it seems like half the stories they run are about chaos at the border.”
As President, Biden has personally sidestepped the immigration issue in many respects, making little effort to push Congress to tackle it after sending an immigration bill to Capitol Hill on his first day in office, and delegating the work of addressing the origins of the migration surge from Central America to Vice President Kamala Harris. A Harvard-Harris poll from mid-December found that just 40% of voters approve of Biden’s handling of immigration.
On Sunday, however, Biden will be facing the immigration issue head on. He’s stopping in El Paso en route to Mexico City where he will meet with Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau. The three leaders are set to discuss how their countries can work together to address climate change, drug trafficking, as well as the hundreds of thousands of migrants moving through Mexico to get to the U.S. each year.
“The President is very much looking forward to seeing for himself firsthand what the border security situation looks like, particularly in El Paso,” John Kirby, White House National Security Council spokesman, told reporters on Friday. “He’s very much also looking forward to getting a chance to talk to Customs and Border Patrol agents on the ground who are actually involved in this mission to get their firsthand perspectives of it.”
The administration’s immigration policy has been mired in court battles, as Biden administration officials have tried to end Title 42, which was initiated under the Trump administration. The courts have insisted Biden keep the order in place. Biden administration officials say that two years of turning people away without hearing their asylum claims has only led to more repeated attempts to cross the border, putting more demands on Border Patrol agents.
To address the rise in migrants, Biden is hoping to convince lawmakers to fund more asylum officers and immigration judges to deliver verdicts more quickly on who is admissible into the U.S. and clear massive case backlogs. “Instead of a safe and orderly process at the border, we have a patchwork system that simply doesn’t work as it should,” Biden said on Thursday in one of his first extensive speeches about the border. “We don’t have enough asylum officers or personnel to determine whether people qualify for asylum. There’s a standard by what you have to meet.”
“We don’t have enough immigrant judges to adjudicate the claims of immigrants,” Biden added.
According to Biden administration figures, the majority of the increase in migrants trying to enter the U.S. in recent months has stemmed from four countries: Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In October, the Biden Administration announced a so-called “parole” program that gave Venezuelans an opportunity to apply to enter the U.S. legally. That was coupled with a threat that Venezuelan migrants who presented themselves at the border without requesting lawful entry beforehand would be turned back to Mexico without being allowed to request asylum. Customs and Border Protection said that the program reduced the number of Venezuelans trying to cross the border from 1,100 each day in October to less than 250 per day on average, according to administration figures.
On Thursday, the Biden Administration officially expanded that program to include offers of parole for migrants coming from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua. Under the new effort, in which the U.S. intends to accept 30,000 people per month from the four nations for two years, migrants can download a U.S. government app on their phone while in their home country, show they have a sponsor in the U.S., and wait to receive permission to buy a plane ticket to travel to the U.S. Also on Thursday, the Biden administration issued a proposed regulation that would disqualify migrants from asylum if they did not request protection first in a country like Mexico they transited through to get to the U.S. border.
The new program quickly prompted criticism from migrant rights activists who say that asking those seeking asylum to return to their home country, use a smartphone and buy a plane ticket shows a lack of understanding of what it means to be destitute and fleeing untenable conditions. Critics on the right hammered Biden for creating a new legal pathway for people to enter the U.S.
Congress has tried and failed for decades to meaningfully overhaul the country’s immigration system. The closest they came to succeeding in recent memory was ten years ago, when Republicans and Democrats in the Senate passed an immigration reform package that contained $30 billion for border security and a pathway to citizenship for people in the country unlawfully, but the proposal died in the Republican-controlled House.
Experts who study migration say that the factors driving people to the U.S. border are bigger than any one administration’s policies and include the increasing frequency of devastating storms caused by the changing climate, authoritarian crackdowns, the COVID-19 pandemic, and unchecked criminal violence. “This has been building up since 2020,” says Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. To link migration flows to the policies of any one administration “puts it too much in an American-centered context,” says Heyman. In 2020, people weren’t able to move as freely because of COVID-19 lockdowns on travel. “It has a lot to do with the kind of opening up of people’s ability to move across Latin America in the aftermath of COVID-19,” Heyman says. ”It’s also reflective of the traumatic impacts of COVID in many countries in Latin America.”
The U.S. economy has grown over its history with influxes of migrants into the workforce. Separately, the asylum system came about in the aftermath of America’s reluctance to take in refugees during Adolf Hitler’s systematic killing of Jews in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. “There’s a moral discussion we should have, and there’s a practical discussion, which is we need migrants in our labor force,” Heyman says.
Karina Breceda, who helps migrant women in Juárez and El Paso through a nonprofit called New Wave Feminists, has seen a bottleneck of people at the U.S. border in recent months, filling up shelters. Breceda has noticed more people traveling to the border with small children, a sign, she says, of the desperate conditions they are facing back home.
One night last week when temperatures were below freezing, Breceda’s group found a woman from Nicaragua and her 3-month-old daughter on the street in El Paso, and raced to find a warm place for them to sleep. The woman had already filled out paperwork with the U.S. government and been released in El Paso, but the shelters were full. Breceda says they could help a lot more people if U.S. border officials would tell local groups when migrants were being released. “Nobody deserves to sleep in freezing cold temperatures,” Breceda says. “This isn’t about politics. It’s about people.”
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