Miriam Jordan and Max Rivlin-Nadler, New York Times, February 6, 2021
President Biden’s first immigration crisis has already begun as thousands of families have surged toward the southwestern border in recent weeks, propelled by expectations of a friendlier reception and by a change in Mexican policy that makes it harder for the United States to expel some of the migrants.
More than 1,000 people who had been detained after crossing have been released into the country in recent days in a swift reversal from the Trump administration’s near shutdown of the border. Many more people are gathering on the Mexican side, aggravating conditions there and testing America’s ability and willingness to admit migrants during a pandemic.
New families every day have been collecting in Mexican border towns, sleeping in the streets, under bridges and in dry ditches, according to lawyers and aid groups working along the border. On Thursday in Mexicali, across from Calexico, Calif., desperate migrants could be seen trying to scale a border fence. A migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, just across a bridge from Texas, has boomed to 1,000 people over the past few weeks.
To guard against the coronavirus, health authorities in San Diego have arranged housing for hundreds of arriving migrants in a downtown high-rise hotel, where they are being quarantined before being allowed to join family or friends in the interior of the United States.
“There has been a significant increase in asylum seekers arriving, and we know that the numbers are only going to keep rising dramatically,” said Kate Clark, senior director for immigration services at Jewish Family Service of San Diego, which has been providing the families clothes and personal hygiene items and helping them arrange onward travel.
The surge poses the first major test of Mr. Biden’s pledge to adopt a more compassionate policy along America’s border with Mexico.
The prospect of large numbers of migrants entering the country during a pandemic could create a strong public backlash for Mr. Biden as his administration takes steps to undo the strict policies put into place by his predecessor.
A renewed influx would put pressure on immigration courts already straining under a massive backlog of asylum cases. Those who favor more restrictive immigration policies say that migrants who lose their cases could go underground, choosing to remain in the country unlawfully and adding to the estimated 10 million undocumented people already in the United States.
“It was predictable that there would be virtually no honeymoon for the Biden administration on the multiple crises that are displacing persons in the Northern Triangle states of Central America and elsewhere,” said Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank.
These include the two hurricanes that destroyed many livelihoods and homes in Guatemala and Honduras; the devastating effect of the pandemic on economies across Latin America; and continued gang control of many communities, often accompanied by extortion and violence.
Before former President Donald J. Trump took office, it had been the longstanding practice through several administrations to allow people facing persecution in their home countries to enter the United States and submit petitions for asylum. Some new migrants were held in detention until their cases were decided while others went free.
But Mr. Trump derided such policies as “catch and release,” and in 2019, he imposed a requirement that applicants wait in Mexico until their asylum requests were approved or denied. In March of last year, his administration invoked a health emergency law to effectively seal the border during the pandemic except to citizens and legal residents of the United States. Those who attempted to cross were summarily expelled back to Mexico.
But Mexico in recent days has begun enforcing a law passed in November that bars holding children under 12 in government custody. As a result, it has stopped accepting Central American families with young children back into Mexico, at least along some stretches of the border with Texas, forcing the United States to keep them. In order to avoid holding large numbers of people in shelters or immigration detention centers during a health crisis, Border Patrol has been releasing some of them to join family and friends across the United States.
At least 1,000 migrants have been allowed to cross into Texas in recent days, border activists said, though the Border Patrol has not released any official estimates.
Jewish Family Service, which is helping families through their hotel quarantines in San Diego, said 140 migrants were released by the Border Patrol to the nonprofit in January, up from 54 in December. During the first five days of February, the number grew to more than 200.
News of the Mexican law has sown widespread confusion, with many migrants mistakenly believing that the law, along with the change of administration, means the United States will now allow anyone to cross.
Mother Isabel Turcios, a nun in Piedras Negras, Mexico, a small town across from Eagle Pass, Texas, described a chaotic situation with migrants arriving by the dozens by train each day and parking themselves on street corners and in abandoned houses, hoping for a chance to cross.
“There are many, many mothers with children coming,” she said. “They think they will be allowed to pass because there is a new president. Some are succeeding, not all.”