Miriam Jordan, New York Times, December 13, 2020
Unauthorized entries are swelling in defiance of the lockdown President Trump imposed on the border during the pandemic and shaping up as the first significant challenge to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s pledge to adopt a more compassionate policy along America’s 1,100-mile border with Mexico.
After a steep decline in border crossings through much of this year, interceptions of unauthorized migrants along the Arizona-Mexico border are climbing again: Detentions in October were up 30 percent over September, and the figure in coming months is expected be even higher, despite the biting cold in the Sonoran desert.
The rising numbers suggest that the Trump administration’s expulsion policy, an emergency measure to halt spread of the coronavirus, is encouraging migrants to make repeated tries, in ever-more-remote locations, until they succeed in crossing the frontier undetected.
And they are likely the leading edge of a much more substantial surge toward the border, immigration analysts say, as a worsening economy in Central America, the disaster wrought by Hurricanes Eta and Iota and expectations of a more lenient U.S. border policy drive ever-larger numbers toward the United States.
New migrant caravans formed in Honduras in recent weeks, defying that country’s coronavirus-related lockdown in a bid to head toward the United States but were prevented from leaving the country. And the pandemic has decimated livelihoods in Mexico, prompting a rise in migration from that country after a 15-year decline.
“The pressures that have caused flows in the past have not abated and, in fact, have gotten worse because of the pandemic. If there is a perception of more-humane policies, you are likely to see an increase of arrivals at the border,” said T. Alexander Aleinikoff, director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at the New School in New York.
Mr. Biden has vowed to begin undoing the “damage” inflicted by the Trump administration’s border policies. He has said he will end a program that has returned tens of thousands of asylum seekers to Mexico and restore the country’s historical role as a safe haven for people fleeing persecution.
But swiftly reversing Trump administration policies could be construed as opening the floodgates, risking a rush to the border that could quickly devolve into a humanitarian crisis.
Confronted with soaring numbers of families and unaccompanied children fleeing Central America, the Trump administration, saying that migrants were exploiting the asylum system to gain entry into the United States, rolled out a series of punitive deterrence measures.
After the brutal 2018 “zero-tolerance” policy that separated children from their parents, the Trump administration last year introduced the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “return to Mexico,” forcing some 67,000 asylum seekers to await their immigration hearings on the southern side of the border.
Because the “return to Mexico” policy is not codified by regulation, it could be immediately rescinded by the president-elect.
But the optics of large numbers of migrants suddenly being waved into the United States, or detained in facilities at the border, would create a public-relations nightmare for the new administration and almost certainly draw fierce condemnation from both immigration restrictionists and pro-immigrant activists, for different reasons.
Any misstep would threaten a replay of 2014 and 2016, when the Obama administration scrambled to stem a chaotic influx of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Human-rights groups were outraged when families and children were locked up and deportations were accelerated. Immigration hard-liners attacked Mr. Obama for allowing tens of thousands to enter the United States and remain in the country while their asylum cases wound through the courts, which can take years.
The Biden administration will seek to ameliorate conditions in Central America and to enlist Mexican cooperation. In 2015, the former vice president secured bipartisan support for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to those countries, assistance then mostly frozen by Mr. Trump, and he has promised to tackle “the root causes that push desperate people to flee their homes in the first place.”
Yet the incoming administration has been silent on Title 42, the public-health emergency law that the Trump administration invoked to justify the immediate expulsion of unauthorized migrants to their last country of transit. Since its implementation in March, some 300,000 migrants, including many of those crossing recently in Arizona, have been expelled.
Along the perilous migrant corridor in Arizona, where temperatures dipped to 27 degrees last weekend, Border Patrol agents responded to 10 separate 911 calls from migrants, rescuing more than two dozen men, women and children, including three toddlers.
“Before, everybody was just turning themselves in,” said John Mennell, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in Arizona. “Now they are back to running and hiding. Those are the people who are going to get lost. Smugglers abandon them; they lose cellphone coverage and they run until they can’t anymore.”
The migrants devoured chicken sandwiches, fruit cups and cereal bars offered by two American volunteers. Dora Rodriguez, who works with a group called Tucson Samaritans, draped blank-and-white blankets on their shoulders and did not resist when Mr. Alexander reached out to hug her.
“The numbers we are seeing here don’t compare to normal times because of the pandemic, and we have been hearing from more migrants displaced by the hurricanes” said Ms. Rodriguez, who runs a humanitarian nonprofit called Salvavision.
“In people’s mind, they believe that a new administration will open the borders and give them an opportunity to stay,” said Ms. Rodriguez. “We are expecting a large number of people.”