Bob Sheak, March 25, 2021
Currently, the Republicans in the U.S. Congress are doing their best to draw the public’s attention to a “crisis” (indeed, it is a humanitarian refugee crisis) at the US-Mexico border. But the Republican position reflects no concern for the refugees and asylum seekers who are escaping from dire economic, environmental and social circumstances in their home countries. The adults hope to find jobs and a better life in the United States.
There are two interlinked parts of the immigration issue. One concerns the number of migrants who are seeking entrance to the U.S., a number that looks as though it will remain high and rise, mainly because the conditions driving immigration in Central America, Mexico, and other countries with large impoverished and disrupted populations are likely not only to remain dire but to worsen. The other concern is what to do about the large undocumented population of roughly 11 million or so who already reside in the country. In this post, I’ll concentrate on the first concern. Biden and congressional Democrats are addressing both parts, against strong, if not unified, opposition from Republicans.
According to an article by Georgina Gustin, “the World Bank projects that nearly 4 million people from Central America and Mexico could become climate migrants by 2050” (https://insideclimatenews.org/98072019/climate-change-migration-honduras-drought-crop-failure-farming-deforestation-guatemala-trump).
John Gramlich reviews current research from the Pew Research Center to substantiate that there is a border crisis (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/03/15/migrant-apprehensions-at-u-s-mexico-border-are-surging-again). He reports that in February the “U.S. Border Patrol apprehended nearly 100,000 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, “the tenth consecutive month of increased apprehensions and a return to levels last seen in mid-2019.” And the trend in apprehensions at the southwestern border since April of 2020 has been up. The Pew data indicate that “apprehensions have climbed every month since then and reached 96,974 in February [of 2021], according to new data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the federal agency that encompasses the Border Patrol. (It’s important to note that apprehensions refer to events, not people, and some migrants may be apprehended more than once” – and some migrants may not be apprehended).
There are some more detailed findings about the apprehended migrant population from the Pew research as well. “While only around a third of all apprehensions in February were people traveling in families or unaccompanied minors, their numbers have increased sharply this year. Apprehensions of people traveling in families rose from 7,064 to 18,945, or 168%, between January and February, while apprehensions of unaccompanied minors rose from 5,694 to 9,297, or 63%.”
The plight of immigrant children at the border has been of greatest recent concern. According to Gramlich, they “pose unique challenges for the Border Patrol because they may legally only be detained in holding facilities for up to three days before being transferred to shelters. As migrant apprehensions have soared in recent months, many children have been detained longer than the three-day limit due to a lack of space at shelters.” The Biden administration is scrambling to fix the problem but it will take time. Meanwhile, some children are being kept in unacceptable situations, as the Biden administration tries to find more adequate facilities and opportunities in the U.S. to relocate children with family, relatives, or other legitimate and screened sponsors.
Deep historical roots involving US intervention
It has been well documented by historians that the countries of Central and South America have been ruled much of the time, certainly over the two hundred years, by authoritarian and self-serving government that siphon off foreign assistance money, promote foreign investment to extract resources, exploit cheap labor, and enable land grabs and unregulated treatment of corporations. And the US has been instrumental in fostering such conditions. Historian Greg Grandin provides an in-depth analysis of the US involvement in creating this system in his book, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (2006).
Legal scholar Majorie Cohn provides a concise summary, as follows.
“The history of U.S. intervention in the Northern Triangle countries has destabilized them and exacerbated the migrant crisis. “[W]e must also acknowledge the role that a century of U.S.-backed military coups, corporate plundering, and neoliberal sapping of resources has played in the poverty, instability, and violence that now drives people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras toward Mexico and the United States,” (https://truthout.org/articles/trump-is-obliterating-the-right-to-asylum).
Alison Bodine and Tamara Hansen point to how the relationship between U.S. intervention in Latin America and the severe problems in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala “is most clearly expressed by the 2009 U.S.-backed coup in Honduras” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/07/23/imperialist-made-crisis-migrants-and-refugees).They elaborate: “10 years ago, the United States backed a right-wing overthrow of the elected government of Manuel Zelaya. Since then, political repression, state violence, and increasing poverty in Honduras have escalated, creating structural and institutional vacuums, along with deep instability throughout the country. After the U.S. supported coup Honduras ended Manuel Zelaya’s presidency, a country with a prospect of political and economic development became a failed state.”
Trump and right-wing forces in the US frequently refer to the gangs, like MS-13, throughout the region, and how gang members are said to join migrants on their way to the US-Mexico border. There is little evidence that gangs are a large segment of the migrant flow to the U.S.-Mexico border. That said, gang violence is a prominent reason in causing the flight of migrants out of Central America. An often-overlooked part of the story is that the gangs, or many of them, were created in the US. On this point, Bodine and Hansen say the gangs “were first formed in U.S. prisons, and then transplanted to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala when people were released from prison and then deported.” The cite UNHCR reports to illustrate some of the consequences, and write: “Current homicide rates are among the highest ever recorded in Central America. Several cities, including San Salvador, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, are among the 10 most dangerous in the world. The most visible evidence of violence is the high rate of brutal homicides, but other human rights abuses are on the rise, including the recruitment of children into gangs, extortion and sexual violence” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019//07/23/imperialist-made-crisis-migrants-and-refugees
For the people in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, there are presently a growing number of farmers who cannot increasingly grow enough food to feed themselves, let alone a surplus with which to buy essentials. There are many others living in urban areas who, amid high levels of unemployment, can only find low-wage work, insecure work. And corrupt governments there offer too few and inadequate public assistance, while promoting policies that disproportionately benefit foreign corporations and their own wealthy classes. These are systemic problems.
Hannah Holleman documents in her book, Dust Bowls of Empire: Imperialism, Environmental Polices and the Injustice of “Green” Capitalism, that farmers not only in Central America but around the world have been locked into an agricultural system imposed by rich, capitalist countries that drive them into debt, degrades the soils and depletes water sources. This unsustainable situation is combined and made worse by the intensifying effects of climate disruption, reflected in increasing periods of drought and other extreme weather events.
The effects of climate disruption
Oliver Milman, Emily Holden, and David Agren address how climate change is increasingly figuring into the mass migration from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/30/migrant-caravan-causes-climate-change-central-america). They report that “[w]hile violence and poverty have been cited as the reasons for the exodus, experts say the big picture is that changing climate is forcing farmers off their land – and it’s likely to get worse.” They confirm what so many others have found that most of the migrant caravans come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, “the three countries devastated by violence, organized crime and systemic corruption, [have roots] which can be traced back to the region’s cold war conflicts.” Now people in these countries also being increasingly afflicted by climate change.
According to experts interviewed by Milman, Holden, and Agren, climate change “is likely to push millions more people north towards the US.” The journalists quote Robert Albro, a researcher at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, says, “‘The focus on violence is eclipsing the big picture – which is that people are saying they are moving because of some version of food insecurity,’ And Albro continues: “‘The main reason people are moving is because they don’t have anything to eat. This has a strong link to climate change – we are seeing tremendous climate instability that is radically changing food security in the region.’” Albro adds: “Migrants don’t often specifically mention ‘climate change’ as a motivating factor for leaving because the concept is so abstract and long-term…. But people in the region who depend on small farms are painfully aware of changes to weather patterns that can ruin crops and decimate incomes.”
The crisis on the border now – the children
In an article published on March 23, 2021, Jessica Corbett reports on how children are being crowded in “border jails” and the Biden administration is limiting journalists’ access to the detention facilities (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2021/03/23/biden-restricts-media-access-photos-show-children-crowded-borders-jail). Over the weekend of March 20-21, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) shared photos taken at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) overflow facility in Donna, Texas. The photos “reveal the crowded, makeshift conditions at the border as the government’s longer-term child shelters and family detention centers fill up.
Corbett writes: “The CBP, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is supposed to transfer most unaccompanied children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within 72 hours. However, thousands of minors have recently been held past that legal limit. As of Saturday [March 20], according to a DHS document leaked to Axios, 3,314 children had been in custody longer than three days, 2,226 more than five days, and 823 over 10 days.” She also refers to an interview conducted by “The View” on Monday, March 22, with Jacob Soboroff, author of Separated: Inside an American Tragedy, a book on former President Trump’s immigration policies. Soboroff said that part of the problem now is “the Biden administration isn’t letting us [reporters] go see them [the children] for ourselves.” Soboroff also points out that the border facilities now being used to house the children are “just like the Trump used during separations,” that is, “the same type of punitive, jail-like facility operated by the Border Patrol agents who are there as law enforcement agents. They wear guns on their hip… that’s what this is.”
At a news briefing on Monday, March 22, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki is quoted as saying that “I hope to have an update in the coming days. We are working… with the Department of Health and Human Services and also the Department of Homeland Security, to ensure privacy and ensure we’re following Covid protocols. We remain committed to transparency, and, of course, as I noted last week, we certainly want to make sure that the media has access to these sites.” Psaki added: “the photos released by Cuellar ‘show what we’ve long been saying, which is that these Border Patrol facilities are not places made for children. They are not places that we want children to be staying for an extended period of time. Our alternative [a rejected alternative] is to send children back on this treacherous journey. That is not, in our view, the right choice to make.”
At the same time, Psaki attempts confusingly to defend the position that this is not a border crisis but a situation that stems from “children presenting at our border who are fleeing violence, who are fleeing prosecution, who are fleeing terrible situations, is not a crisis. We feel that it is our responsibility to humanely approach this circumstance and make sure they are treated… and put into conditions that are safe.” Psaki is right in identifying the conditions that are pushing migrants to the U.S. border. But it is also a crisis at the border that reflects the unpreparedness of the Biden administration to care for the children safely and expeditiously. In this regard, Corbett reports, “The Week’s Ryan Cooper wrote in a column Tuesday that the “most honest criticism of Biden’s immigration record is that he has not reversed Trump’s appalling, illegal practices fast enough (nor those of his predecessor, which were nearly as bad).” Cooper concluded the interview with this statement: “It’s true that it would be much cheaper and simpler to deflate the frenzy of media hysteria by doing what Trump did—basically closing the border, throwing penniless refugees back over it, and forcing Mexico to deal with the problem. Dealing with migrants in a fair and humane fashion will require money, patience, and good administration.”
Republicans and others on the right want to politicize the crisis. If successful, they can divert the public attention away from the administration’s progress in the struggle against the Covid-19 pandemic, the popularity of the $1.9 trillion covid-relief package, and from massive efforts by Republicans in states to suppress the votes of Democrats and subvert democracy, while shifting attention to the present humanitarian-refugee crisis. At the same time, the Biden administration is, as noted, currently hard pressed to handle the surge at the border, especially that of the migrant children who are coming to the border unaccompanied and the families with a single parent and a child or children.
The Republican approach: support Trump’s right-wing policies to keep out most migrants
Go back to extending the “wall”
Wikipedia gives a useful account of Trump’s build-the-wall saga (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trump_wall). Trump promised to construct a much larger border wall than the one that existed during his 2016 presidential campaign, “claiming that if elected he would ‘build the wall and make Mexico pay for it.” This would be a wall that would extend the entire almost 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. The President of Mexico at the time, Enrique Pena Nieto, stated that his country would not pay for the wall. And, up to the present, this has been the unwavering position of the Mexican government.
On January 25, 2017, after being elected, “Trump signed Executive Order 13767, which formally directed the US government to begin attempting wall construction along the US border with Mexico using existing federal funding,” though “actual construction did not begin at this time due to the significant expense and lack of clarity on how it would be funded.
Trump continued to grapple with Democrats in Congress through 2017 over funding and threatened at his rallies and through his tweets to shut down the government if Congress did not approve funding. Congress refused and Trump did partially shut down the federal government for 35 days, from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019, and insisted that he would “veto any spending bill that did not include $5.7 billion in border wall funding.” This turned out to be the longest government shut down in US history. In the end, Trump lost this battle and did not get the funding he wanted.
The persistence of Trump on obtaining funding from Congress for the border wall continued. Congress did authorize $1.4 billion for border security, but that did not satisfy the president. On February 15, 2019, he “signed a Declaration of National Emergency, saying that the situation at the Mexico-United States border is a crisis requiring money allocated for other purposes to be used instead to build the wall.” Following this, “Congress passed a joint resolution to overturn the emergency order, but Trump vetoed the resolution.” This led Trump to say that he would go ahead and transfer already authorized funds for other purposes (e.g., military funds) to be transferred to wall building projects. Up to the present, July 2019, this effort has been stopped by the courts (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-29/judge-blocks-trump-s-funding-plan-for-more-sections-of-the-wall). However, the Supreme Court then ruled to allow Trump to shift $2.5 billion from other agency budgets to border security (July 26, 2019).
According to the US Customs and Border Protection agency, as of July 2019, construction “had begun to replace old fencing [but] no new wall had yet been built” with government money. Republicans want to re-start the effort.
There are currently “a series of vertical barriers” along the border, “a discontinuous series of physical obstructions variously classified as ‘fences’ or ‘walls.’” In January 2019, there were 580 miles of barriers in place, according to US Customs and Border Protection. There are also other security measures [many in place before Trump], “provided by a ‘virtual fence’ of sensors, cameras, and other surveillance equipment used to dispatch United States Border Patrol agents to areas where migrants are attempting to cross the border illegally. Legal expert Marjorie Cohn points out that Trump was” increasing his illegal militarization of the southern border by deploying 2,100 additional troops to join the 4,500 military personnel already there” (https://truthout.org/articles/trump-is-obliterating-the-right-to-asylum).
Other Trump policies designed to reduce migrant entry to the U.S.
In addition to the Trump wall, Trump and his administration adopted other policies designed to keep migrants from entering the country. When one policy didn’t work or is met with public outrage, Congressional opposition, and/or legal challenges, another one with the same intent is concocted. They wanted to make conditions so bad that word among migrants would get back to others in their home countries that the costs of migration to the US-Mexico border are too great to justify the arduous and dangerous trek of over a thousand miles from Central America, through Mexico, to the border with the US. In advancing such policies, they ignore or dismiss the deteriorating and unsafe conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and other countries that compel them to migrate.
Make processing of refugee and asylum claims complex and designed to fail
Immigration lawyer Jennifer Harbury provides further details in an interview on Democracy Now on the process by which migrants seek “legal resettlement,” or legal entry, into the U.S. It’s complex that requires asylum seekers provide not only considerable documentation but must satisfy other requirements as well. And it was subverted by Trump (https://www.democracynow.org/2018/7/9/human_rights_lawyer_jennifer_harbury_on). Here is what some of what she said.
“…under 8 U.S.C. 1225, [a person] goes up to the port of entry, knocks on the door and literally says, ‘I’m in danger. I need to apply for asylum.’ And as I said earlier, they then go to a credible fear interview [no criminal record] and then to a detention center, initially, and they’ll be put in proceedings before an immigration judge… if they’ve got perfectly good identification, they’ve never committed a crime, they’re not a threat to anyone, they’re just on the run from the cartels, and they have legal status relatives, citizen or LPR [legal permanent resident of the U.S.], who will take them in and sponsor them and pay all their expenses.”
At that point in the process, a person or parent and children who satisfied all these requirements would pre-Trump have “always been released” on conditional approval of resettlement. Trump contemptuously calls this a “catch and release” policy that he was determined to end and contended that most migrants under these circumstances did not return for scheduled court appearances. The evidence indicates otherwise. Caitlin Dickerson cites information from Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center that case management programs used in the past to ensure immigrants show up for court have proven to be “both cheaper than detention and have a proven track record of near universal court compliance (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/us/immigration-detention.html).
Trump succeeded in reducing legal, asylum requests
In an article published on Nov. 20, 2020, for the Migration Policy Institute, Muzaffar Chishti and Jessica Bolter make four points about “the Trump effect” on legal immigration Levels (https://www.migrationpolicy.org/trump-effect-immigration-realty). The say that the Trump policies have had “immediate and dramatic effects.”
(1) “The administration has sharply lowered refugee admissions, arguing that refugees pose a national security threat and impose a significant financial burden on federal and local governments. In FYs 2018 and 2020, the Trump administration admitted the lowest numbers of refugees since the current U.S. refugee resettlement program began in 1980: 22,491 and 11,814 respectively. This was a significant drop compared to the 84,995 refugees resettled in FY 2016.”
(2) “The administration has also significantly narrowed eligibility for asylum in the United States, for example by eliminating certain grounds for asylum and making it almost impossible to be granted asylum or, more recently, even apply for it at the border. These changes have led many to conclude that the prospects for receiving asylum in the United States have largely ended.”
(3) Despite the attempts to reduce successful asylum claims, the number of asylum seekers whose claims were approved actually increased during the Trump years—to the highest level since at least 1990. This is partly because there have been many more asylum applicants in recent years, and the backlog has been growing for several years. In many instances, applications that were approved while Trump was in office were filed during the Obama administration.
(4) “At the same time, asylum denials have increased even more than approvals, meaning that although the number of asylum grants increased, the approval rate has concurrently decreased, from 43 percent in FY 2016 to 29 percent in FY 2019. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s dramatic narrowing of opportunities to apply for asylum has contributed to fewer new applications being filed. Since these applications can take a long time to process, it is likely that, absent major policy reversals, the number of approved asylum cases will fall substantially in coming years.”
Metering: To delay entry and hope that migrants return to their home countries
The metering method, begun in mid-2018, requires migrants who have come to the border claiming the right of asylum to sign their name on a “notebook,” be given a number, sometime later be called for an asylum hearing before an immigration judge, but in the meantime be required to remain on the Mexican-side of the border. often without shelter and other basic requirements of life and neighborhoods that are unsafe. Some give up and try to enter the US illegally. If they are caught on the US-side of the border, they often will be put in a detention facility until their asylum status is assessed by an immigration judge. This may take weeks, months, or more. Either way, they can be in a limbo time awaiting an official decision on whether they will be granted asylum or not.
“Remain in Mexico”
In this case, migrants who reach the US side of the border are told to return to the Mexican towns near the border, which are often violent places with limited or no shelters or centers in which they can stay, and, as transits, they are particularly vulnerable. Marjorie Cohn, professor-emeritus of law and prolific writer tells us that “Remain in Mexico” policy the colloquial name for “Migrant Protocols Program” (https://truthout.org/articles/trump-is-obliterating-the-right-to-asylum). It is a program designed to return asylum seekers and migrants to Mexico. It differs from the metering program in that it offers no official opportunity to be considered for asylum in the US. In both cases, they are prevented from entering the US for an asylum hearing. The “Remain in Mexico” program began on January 25, 2019. Within five months, Cohn writes, “the U.S. had returned 15,079 people – including at least 4,780 children – who came mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Human Rights Watch reported at least 29 instances of harm to asylum seekers in Juárez, including kidnapping, violent attacks and sexual assaults.”
Punitive, long-term detention
If they have gained entrance into the country with a pending asylum claim, have been apprehended after entering the country “illegally,” or give themselves up an entry port without asylum-appropriate papers, they are sometimes put into sorely inadequate detention facilities that are ill-suited to provide even minimally adequate space, food, heat or cooling, medical care, or decent accommodations for children. Marjorie Cohn also addresses this issue with her typical legal and analytical expertise (https://truthout.org/articles/indefinite-detention-of-migrants-violates-international-law).
On June 26, 2018, according to Cohn, a federal judge in San Diego ordered the Trump administration to stop separating children from their parents and to reunite them. This was after 2,300 children had been separated since May 5. Then on June 29, “the Department of Justice filed a notice of compliance with the court order, but indicated its intention to indefinitely detain families together.” Cohn adds that indefinite detention violates international law, noting that such detention can last for months or even years. On July 2, “a federal judge in Washington ordered the government to give asylum applicants a meaningful opportunity to be released…. [But] More than 1,000 applicants have been incarcerated for months or years with no resolution of their cases.”
According to Cohn, the indefinite detention policy of the Trump administration violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the US has ratified, and the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, “which says treaties shall be the supreme law of the land.” According to the UN Human Rights Committee, “the expert body that monitors compliance with the covenant, detentions are arbitrary [and unlawful] if they do not accord with due process and are manifestly disproportional, unjust or unpredictable,” and “Keeping families locked up for months with no good reason is unjust and inappropriate. It denies them due process and a timely resolution of their legal claims. And their time of release is unpredictable.” Cohn points out that “Negative effects of prolonged detention may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, in violation of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the United States has ratified.”
There are exceptions under this law: “Parties to the covenant may refuse to comply with them only ‘in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.’ But, Cohn quotes Aflred de Zayas, UN independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equable international order, who says “Neither the war on terror nor restrictive immigration policies justify indefinite detention.”
Make conditions in detention facilities atrocious – even for children
As already indicated, the conditions in the detention facilities are bad. Adam Serwer reviews evidence on the conditions in an article for The Atlantic magazine on July 3, 2019 (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/07/border-facilities/593239).
Observers who have visited immigration detention facilities in the Southwest have “reported that children were being held in cruelly austere conditions.” They told the press that at the facility in Clint, Texas, children, as young as 7 and 8 were sleeping on concrete floors and being denied soap and toothpaste. Many of the children were “described as wearing clothes caked with snot and tears … caring for infants they’ve just met.’ Serwer quotes a visiting doctor called the detention centers “torture facilities.” He refers to reports that “at least seven children have died in U.S. custody in the past year, compared with none in the 10 years prior.” And, astoundingly, Serwer writes that “[m]ore than 11,000 children are now being held by the U.S. government on any given day.” Beyond such beastly deprivations, “the administration has canceled recreational activities, an act that, like the conditions themselves, likely violates the law.”
There’s more evidence. According to Serwer, “At a processing center in El Paso, Texas, 900 migrants were ‘being held at a facility designed for 125. In some cases, cells designed for 35 people were holding 155 people,’ The New York Times reported. One observer described the facility to Texas Monthly as a ‘human dog pound.’ The government’s own investigators have found detainees in facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement being fed expired food at detention facilities, ‘nooses in detainee cells,’ ‘inadequate medical care,’ and ‘unsafe and unhealthy conditions.’ An early-July inspector-general report found ‘dangerous overcrowding’ in some Border Patrol facilities and included pictures of people crowded together like human cargo. More than 50,000 people are being held in facilities run by ICE, and something close to 20,000 in facilities run by Customs and Border Protection, and more than 11,000 children in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. (The government describes them as “unaccompanied,” a label immigration advocates say is misleading because many were separated by the government from the relative who brought them) Some of the people detained by the U.S. government have entered the United States illegally or overstayed their visas; some are simply seeking to exercise their legal right to asylum.”
“‘There were definitely parts of the Obama program that did similar—and, in fact, some of the same—things,’ said Chris Rickerd, a policy counsel at the ACLU. ‘But this all-encompassing skepticism of asylum seekers fleeing violence—justifying cruel treatment, justifying changes in the law, and justifying overcrowding to the point of unsafe and deadly conditions—[is] of a scale and a type that we haven’t seen before.’ One pediatrician who visited a Border Patrol facility in Texas observed ‘extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.’ Photographs show migrants huddled together, languishing in filth behind chain-link fences, some with little more than Mylar blankets for shelter. The president’s defenders on Fox News have compared these conditions to summer camp and house parties.”
These policies are intentional, or as Serwer writes, “deliberately inflicted suffering on children to deter illegal immigration, with its use of family separation. It has altered immigration policy and the asylum process so as to force the authorities to hold migrants, whether they have properly sought asylum at a port of entry or crossed illegally, and has made it more difficult for children to be released to sponsors in the United States by threatening to arrest and deport family members who lack legal status. By deliberately throttling the asylum process, the administration has pushed desperate migrants to risk death by crossing the border illegally rather than presenting themselves at ports of entry, and has sought to prosecute those who would help migrants survive the journey by leaving them food and water, effectively making the federal misdemeanor of illegal entry a capital crime. In private, some Border Patrol agents consider migrant deaths a laughing matter; others are succumbing to depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.”
The initial border experience of the Biden Administration is problematic
Sean Sullivan and Nick Miroff report on March 15 in The Washington Post how Republicans, reporters, centrist Democrats, some from the left are criticizing the Biden administration for its inability thus far to deal with chaotic and inhumane situation at the border (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-immigration-political-threat). In February, for example, illegal crossings at the border skyrocketed, topping “100,000, a 28 percent increase from the previous month.” Custom and Border Protection figures indicate the surge will continue, as there have been already in March “more than 4,000 border apprehensions each day.” The border situation is made especially problematic because “so many crossing the border are minors”
The critics of Biden’s handling of the border crisis
Sullivan and Miroff give the following examples. They report that “Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican took a trip to the border on that day (March 1), visiting a processing center in El Paso to slam Biden’s approach, told reporters: “There’s no other way to claim it than a Biden border crisis.” Republicans are “laying the groundwork for immigration-centric attacks in the midterm elections” and are claiming already that Biden and the Democrats are weak on the border and letting everybody in and “that huge flow of migrants presents safety risks and could worsen the pandemic.” The Republicans want to shut down the border and keep all unacceptable (that is, the great majority of) migrants out of the country, including unaccompanied children. “They’ve been negligent,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), NRSC chairman, said of the Biden administration. “It’s bad for the country to not have a secure border.” They want Trump’s deterrent policies reinstituted, the construction of the border wall to continue, and generally making it hard for migrants, whatever their legal status, to enter the U.S.
There are other critics as well. Sullivan and Miroff also quote Neha Desai, “an immigration attorney who recently visited a detention site, who said that while the conditions there have greatly improved from the Trump era, ‘it is unacceptable for children to be spending days on end in dramatically overcrowded facilities.’” And: “Centrist Democrats are nervous about attacks casting them as soft on border security,” while “[l]iberals and immigration activists are sounding alarms about how migrants are treated.” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary acknowledged the problem at a press conference on March 15, but blaming the Trump administration for leaving the present administration with “a dismantled and unworkable system.”
There is a lingering concern about whether “Biden’s rhetoric was heavily responsible for the influx of migrants.” Sullivan and Miroff report: “Last week, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the new U.S. president had stirred hopes for many Central Americans seeking to immigrate or reunite with loved ones already here and quote Obrador as saying the migrants “see him as the migrant president.” The dilemma for Biden then has become that his “promise of a gentler, more humane immigration policy was central to his campaign — but that very message has prompted an influx that the administration is finding hard to control.”
The Biden administration and supporters on the border crisis: It will take time and it is not as bad as it was under Trump
Sean Sullivan and Nick Miroff report that “[a]dministration officials on Monday urged patience and emphasized how much the Trump policies, including cutting off legal immigration channels and regional funding, have affected what they have been able to do out of the gate.” They continue: “To rebut political attacks, they plan to underscore the comprehensive nature of their border approach and are highlighting their commitment to the safety of migrant children.” At the same time, “they admit it will take time” and some admit that the Biden administration may have loosened enforcement at the border prematurely. While most single adult migrants continue to be sent back to Mexico, “the Biden administration halted the practice for teens and children. Since then, their numbers have more than tripled to roughly 500 per day.” Nonetheless, some of Biden’s supporters say the situation is not as bad for children as it was under Trump.
The administration is trying to ease the crisis through temporary emergency measures. It is treating “the crisis as a capacity shortage that can be managed by opening additional shelters, rather than one that requires a major policy shift.” Thus, “CBP is looking at adding tent sites in Yuma and Tucson, for example, to ease overcrowding in border stations in Arizona, according to one official with knowledge of the plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity.” Sullivan and Miroff report that there may be “pushback from communities that do not want undocumented immigrants in their area.”
Neha Desai, the attorney with the National Youth Law Center who represents migrant children, was able to visit a tent site last week in Donna, Tex., that is filled far beyond capacity. The facility is not comparable to the Border Patrol warehouse whose chain-link holding pens were denounced as cages in 2018, Desai said. But she still has concerns. ‘What we saw concerned us profoundly, but I think we share the same goals as the Biden administration,’ she added. ‘No one wants to see these children hungry, terrified and apart from their family.’” The Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services has opened an “Emergency Intake” site in Midland, Tex., with assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency” and being “staffed by the American Red Cross, private contractors and federal workers.”
Still, Sullivan and Miroff note that “[m]any liberal Democrats have voiced concerns about how children are being treated, even as they acknowledge a difference from the Trump years. As one example, they quote Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif): “The administration and Congress must prioritize better housing for these children while their asylum cases are being adjudicated,”
The crisis was “unexpected”
Whatever the causes, Dan Balz, analyzes “the unexpected challenge for Biden and his team” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/the-surge-of-migration-presents-an-unexpected-challenge-for-biden-and-his-team). The Biden administration got off to a good start for most of the first 60 days, as it accelerated “the pace of vaccinations while muscling through Congress the nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan over united Republican opposition.” The administration also signaled a shift from the immigration policies of Trump by signing “a proclamation calling for a halt on construction of the border wall” and proposing legislation to “rewrite the immigration laws, including an eventual pathway to citizenship for the more than 11 million immigrants who are here without documentation.” But the surge in undocumented migrants threatens to detract from these initiatives.
The news coverage now focuses on the “surge on the border, which included a substantial increase in the number of unaccompanied minors,” and “the humanitarian emergency and a political mess-in-the-making that it is ill-prepared to handle.” Balz notes that “administration officials “have blamed the Trump administration for some of its problems, claiming they inherited a broken and punitive system.” Nonetheless, they are now faced with confounding situations. “What to do when someone crosses the border illegally?” And
“just how strictly should the law be enforced and what are the consequences of either doing or not doing so?”
In an interview with ABC’s earlier in March, Balz reports that “Biden dismissed the idea that the surge of migration is a result of his more welcoming attitude, as some of them reportedly have told U.S. officials” and has said that migrants should not come now: ‘Don’t leave your town or city or community.’” Biden went on to explain “that the U.S. government would be setting up centers in these countries [Guatamala, Honduras, El Salvador] where asylum seekers could make their applications,” and asking “Mexico to absorb some of the influx.” All of this “will take time.” Meanwhile, Balz writes, the “challenge for the administration is to show that it can strike a balance between a more compassionate and humane immigration policy at the border and a policy that deals firmly with those who violate the law — and one that, ultimately, discourages people, including asylum seekers, from coming here in overwhelming numbers.”
There is no reason to anticipate that the number of refugees and asylum seekers will decrease. Balz quotes Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “this past week [who] said the country is on pace for the highest number of individuals crossing the border in 20 years. As of Thursday, March 18, “there were an estimated 14,000 in U.S. hands.” Balz reports that the “administration is trying to expedite the process of moving them from the custody of Customs and Border Protection officials and into the hands of the Department of Health and Human Services and then, as soon as it is feasible, to relocate them with families or sponsors in the United States.”
The Republican response has been to claim that Biden favors open borders, while they want secure, virtually closed, borders, following in the footsteps of the Trump administration. There have also been criticisms from the left, demanding that he deal with the situation quickly and humanely. The challenge for Biden is “to expedite the handling of the unaccompanied minors, to establish a clear policy and to calibrate its messaging both for those in other countries and for a domestic audience that will be judging the administration.”
Who is responsible for the crisis at the border?
Linda Qiu does a fact-check on some of the claims associated with three related question (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/20/us/politics/fact-check-immigration-border.html).
First, she identifies the competing positions, writing: “With the number of migrants apprehended at the southwestern border expected to reach a two-decade high, Republicans are blaming President Biden for the surge, while Democrats argue that immigration system he inherited left him ill-prepared.”
#1 – To deport children or provide them with immediate assistance on the US-side of the border
Qiu cites a claim by Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s secretary of homeland security, who said at a congressional hearing on March 17 that “The previous administration was expelling these unaccompanied children, some who are girls under the age of 12, for example, back to Mexico. We ended that practice.”
Qiu finds this statement to be misleading, writing: “The practice of expelling unaccompanied children ended thanks to a court ruling before Mr. Biden took office, though his administration declined to resume expulsions when an appeals court decided it could do so.” She refers to how “the threat of the coronavirus and using a public health emergency law known as Title 42” led the Trump administration to announce in March of 2020 “that it would send back to their home countries people who illegally crossed the southwestern border, rather than detaining and processing them.” However, in November, “a federal judge ruled that the administration could not expel unaccompanied children.” She continues: “As a result, expulsions of unaccompanied children fell from nearly 3,200 in October to 1,520 in November to just three in December and 18 in January.” Then, in late January 2021, an appeals court stayed that ruling, “once again allowing the expulsion of children, but the Biden administration has decided against the practice. It continues to send back adults and families, however.”
The major implication of these events is that the Trump administration wanted to deport children who had recently arrived at the US-side of the border but was eventually kept from doing so by a court order. And, despite a decision by an appeals court to allow such deportations, the Biden administration has decided against the practice of expelling children and parents with children.
#2 – “Republicans have mischaracterized Mr. Biden’s immigration policies, especially in relation to the virus.
Biden’s policies are not “open border” policies
Qiu cites a statement made by Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas in an interview on Monday, March 15: The Biden border crisis, though, was created by Joe Biden’s promises of amnesty and open borders and free health care for illegals during the campaign.”
According to the fact check, Cotton’s statement is exaggerated. Consistent with the Biden administration’s immigration policy, Biden “has proposed a pathway for citizenship for the undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States and revoked the previous administration’s policy that required asylum seekers to remain in Mexico as they awaited decisions on their cases.” At the same time, Qiu points out, “Mr. Cotton is wrong that Mr. Biden promised ‘free health care’ for undocumented immigrants.” Rather, Biden’s plan, gives immigrants, those already residing in the US and those who will follow, the opportunity to “buy health care plans including a proposed public option on exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act.”
Qiu also refers to a quote by Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, in an interview on Sunday, March 14, on Fox News.
“Yes, the signals that the Biden administration is sending by eliminating the migrant protection program or ‘Remain in Mexico’ program that was negotiated with the Mexican government, and as well as the failure to enforce the Title 42 public health order, which basically give the Border Patrol the ability to keep people out of the country who may infect the U.S. population, basically, they’re ignoring all of that.”
Qiu finds Cornyn’s reference to Title 42 to be inaccurate. The Biden administration has decided not to expel unaccompanied children, despite a court ruling allowing the practice. At the same time, the administration “has continued Title 42 expulsions of most border crossers,” other than children. Qiu adds: “In fact, out of the more than 100,000 encounters at the southwestern border in February, 72,000 led to expulsions.”
#3 – Lawmakers omitted context in describing border crossing trends.
Qiu refers to contrasting statements on the culpability of the Biden administration in the recent surge in refugees and asylum seekers at the border. Republican Senator from Louisiana, Bill Cassidy, said on an interview on Fox News the following: “You can’t help but notice that the administration changes and there’s a surge.” Democratic Representative of Texas, Veronica Escobar made the following statement on CNN (March 14): “We began seeing the increase in unaccompanied minors going back to last April 2020. This is not something that happened as a result of Joe Biden becoming president. We saw the increases dating back almost a year. And this was during the Trump administration.”
Qiu finds that Cassidy “is ignoring that encounters with migrants at the border have been ticking up for months before Mr. Biden took office, while Ms. Escobar is downplaying that the increases accelerated in February.” Jessica Bolter, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said “It’s both. We have been seeing an increase in overall encounters at the border since April of 2020, and there was a bigger increase than we’ve seen in the past few months in February.” Qiu cites evidence from the Border Patrol is verify Bolter’s view. According to the Border Patrol, “agents encountered unaccompanied children at the southwestern border 741 times in April 2020, the lowest monthly level in a decade. That number did gradually increase over the last few months of Mr. Trump’s presidency. But in February, Border Patrol agents recorded more than 9,400 encounters with unaccompanied children, a 61 percent increase since January, a 170 percent increase from February 2020 and the highest number since May 2019.”
There are both push and pull factors that creating the upsurge. “The push factors are at the highest they’ve been at quite some time,” said Mr. Reichlin-Melnick, ticking off political corruption, instability, poverty and violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The economic toll of the pandemic and two hurricanes that battered the region toward the end of last year further exacerbated difficult conditions.” The pull factors include the hope for better economic opportunities and the chance to reunite with family already residing in the United States. Qiu also thinks that Biden’s policies may have had an additional tug: “Rescinding the Remain in Mexico policy, halting the construction of a border wall, and ending agreements allowing the United States to return asylum seekers to Central American countries ‘have motivated people to try to enter illegally now,’ asserted Jessica M. Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes lower levels of immigration.”
Whether or not those specific policies spurred the rise, Biden’s promises of a more humane border policy have been one of the factors in increased migration — a point acknowledged by White House officials and by people crossing the border themselves.
The elements of a comprehensive immigration policy on asylum seekers
One can imagine progressive and radical alternatives that, if implemented, would in various combinations, reduce the suffering of migrants and increase the number who are permitted to enter the US. It would adhere to international and national laws on refugees, while expanding the criteria that define a legitimate asylum claim. It would decriminalize those who are caught trying to enter illegally. It would expedite the asylum process so that migrants who satisfy the criteria can enter the country without long waits. There would not be the dreadful detention facilities that exist under Trump, rather there would adequately-resourced and humanely managed facilities for those who have crossed the border illegally or who are waiting for an asylum decision by an immigration judge. Children would not be separated from their parents and unaccompanied children, those who come without a parent or legal guardian, would be housed in appropriate facilities until homes were found for them. Those permitted to relocate in the US would be provided with transitional assistance, unless that had relatives or other sponsors who were able to assist them.
And, ideally, the conditions in their home countries that drive people to immigrate would be mitigated. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) has some suggestions, as follows:
“Mr. Biden should engage the leaders of the Western Hemisphere for a summit that identifies shared responsibilities, challenges and opportunities. Engaging Northern Triangle countries, fully restoring the Central American Minors program (which allows children to apply for refugee status in their home countries) and reinstating aid (practices curtailed by former President Donald Trump) is a good start. But a multilateral approach must include our Canadian allies and address the causes of the migration coming not just from Central America but from Mexico as well. We need a shared plan with a focus on security to combat crime and persecution that includes cracking down on gangs and other criminal organizations and creates accountability for politicians and officials who turn a blind eye to criminals” (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/24/opinion/border-migrants-central-america.html).
In the end, the issue will be addressed or not, depending on politics and elections. Democratic leaders will be challenged to devise a humane immigration policy, as the number of migrants seeking entrance to the U.S. continues to be large for years to come, stretching border resources, the tolerance of voters, limited by other crises affecting the country, and with poisonous opposition of the Republican Party, their massive electoral base, and the right-wing media.