At US border, a surge in migrants young and old: Three questions.

Allison Dinner/Reuters
Asylum-seeking migrants cross the border from Mexico and are detained by U.S. border agents in Calexico, California, on April 8, 2021. A tide of asylum-seekers (including children) is paralleled by a rise in other migrants from Mexico and Central America seeking to cross for economic opportunities.

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The United States is facing levels of irregular immigration this year that could exceed anything seen in 20 years. Immigration officers encountered more than 170,000 migrants at the border in March, accelerating a trend that began late last year. Just under 19,000 of those arriving were unaccompanied children, almost 8,000 more than the previous monthly record set in May 2019. 

Why the surge? As has been the case since 2014, a big factor is families and children fleeing Central America to escape poverty, gang violence, poor governance, and natural disasters.

Why We Wrote This

A stunning surge in irregular immigration caught the Biden administration off guard. But some experts say the “crisis-like” conditions are less about numbers of people than how the U.S. responds.

Add a rebounding American economy – also affecting flows of migrants from Mexico – and the U.S. can appear like a particular land of promise. President Joe Biden has also taken a notably less harsh approach to immigration than his predecessor, Donald Trump. 

The Biden administration is seeking short-term responses, including through diplomacy. Long-term solutions would involve steps such as improving a byzantine and backlogged asylum system, offering more short-term work visas, and punishing companies that exploit unauthorized migrant labor, says Irasema Coronado, director of the Arizona State University School of Transborder Studies. But substantial reform would take congressional approval, rendering it all but fanciful given the 50-50 Senate.

The rapid increase in irregular immigration raises the prospect of U.S. border apprehensions and encounters this year exceeding anything seen in two decades. 

A record number of unaccompanied minors arrived last month, scrambling immigration services to increase capacity. Sheltering them alone is reportedly costing more than $60 million each week. 

After an initially sluggish response, President Joe Biden’s administration is seeking short- and long-term solutions to the potential humanitarian crisis, likely without the aid of a stubbornly divided Congress.

Why We Wrote This

A stunning surge in irregular immigration caught the Biden administration off guard. But some experts say the “crisis-like” conditions are less about numbers of people than how the U.S. responds.

What is the current situation on the southwest border?

The past few months have been chaos. 

According to monthly figures from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), immigration officers encountered more than 170,000 migrants at the border in March, accelerating a trend that began late last year. About 100,000 migrants were expelled under Title 42, permitting refusal of entry to prevent the spread of infectious disease. Just under 19,000 of those arriving were unaccompanied children, almost 8,000 more than the previous monthly record set in May 2019. 

Border crossings rise and fall cyclically, increasing in the first half of the year, with warmer weather and seasonal employment, and later dropping. Unique about this year is the sheer volume of arrivals, says Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Health and Human Services reduced its shelter capacity to comply with social distancing guidelines. But even full capacity wouldn’t have been able to meet current demand. Entering an overloaded system, many children are spending weeks in temporary CBP shelters meant to house them for no more than 72 hours, without showers, programming, or the ability to contact family.

“The number of people who are coming don't constitute a crisis,” says Ms. Bolter. “But the way that the government has managed it or not managed it has led to some crisis-like conditions.”

What’s causing the increase in border crossings?

A mix of circumstance and policy change. Since 2014, irregular immigration at the southwest border has been dominated by families and children fleeing Central America to escape poverty, gang violence, poor governance, and natural disasters, says Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP
Young migrants watch television inside a playpen at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley, in Donna, Texas, on March 30, 2021. Migrant families will be held temporarily at hotels in the Phoenix area in response to a growing number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, authorities said on April 9.

The same factors are at work today, he says – including two hurricanes that buffeted Guatemala and Honduras late last year and are likely causing increased emigration from the two countries. Add to those factors the rebounding American economy, and the U.S. can appear like a particular land of promise for those in Central America continuing to shoulder the economic burden of COVID-19. (That has helped fuel a resurgence in migrant numbers from Mexico, too.)

Mr. Biden has also taken a notably less harsh approach to immigration than his predecessor, Donald Trump. After facing a similar surge in 2019, the Trump administration responded with near-draconian border policies in 2020, often turning migrants away before they could even reach the U.S. 

“It is clear that there are people that understood that the Biden administration would be more lenient and more generous,” says Irasema Coronado, director of the Arizona State University School of Transborder Studies. 

Tangible policy change between the two administrations has come in three areas. The Biden administration is no longer expelling children under Title 42, is no longer separating families at the border, and has ended the Migrant Protection Protocol – also known as “remain in Mexico” – which forced those seeking asylum to wait in Mexico until their hearing. 

Smugglers will often exaggerate policy changes to boost business, says Ms. Bolter, and it’s unclear just how informed many migrants are before they undertake the often-perilous journey north. Easing coronavirus restrictions in the Americas has also contributed to the influx, experts say. 

How is the Biden administration responding?

It wasn’t until late February and early March (before Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra was confirmed) that increasing shelter capacity became a priority for the administration, says Ms. Bolter. 

Since then the administration has sought to add facilities for incoming migrants and named a special envoy to the Northern Triangle, reflecting a Biden focus on diplomacy. The president also tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead a policy response to the issue.

Long-term solutions would involve steps like simplifying the byzantine U.S. asylum system – with more than 1.3 million cases assigned to around 460 judges – offering more short-term work visas, and punishing companies that exploit unauthorized migrant labor, says Professor Coronado. Substantial reform would take congressional approval, though, rendering it all but fanciful given the 50-50 Senate.  

That reality leaves the Biden administration – which recently struck deals with Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala to increase border enforcement in their countries – in a bind, says Mr. Payan. 

“It needs to be regularized. … It needs to be stopped,” he says. “But how?”

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