January 17, 2023

IntelBrief: Biden’s Visit to U.S. Southern Border Highlights Historic Migrant Surge

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Amid a historic surge in migrant crossings and a burgeoning humanitarian and security crisis, U.S. President Joseph Biden visited the border at El Paso, Texas, in his first trip to the U.S. southern border since he assumed the presidency.
  • Despite months of criticizing Trump-era immigration legislation like “Title 42” during his candidacy, the Biden administration expanded the controversial pandemic public health rule.
  • The crackdown on migrants at the U.S. southern border has exponentially increased demand for smugglers and human traffickers, enriching cartels, and escalating violence around the border.
  • The Biden-Harris administration faces mounting criticism from both Republicans and migrant advocates over their handling of the U.S. southern border, with a reliance on temporary measures and a sustainable solution seemingly out of reach.

On January 8, U.S. President Joseph Biden visited the border at El Paso, Texas, his first trip to the U.S. southern border since taking office two years ago. President Biden’s visit comes amid a historic surge in migrant crossings, a humanitarian and security crisis that has been unfolding for years and has accelerated the past several months. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, there were over 2.3 million encounters with individuals attempting to cross the southern border in the 2022 fiscal year – the highest number on record. In the 2023 fiscal year alone, there have been more southwest encounters than in the entirety of 2020, signaling the trend will likely continue. In his brief visit, President Biden met with Border Patrol officers, members of Congress, and local officials at the Bridge of the Americas Port of Entry – El Paso’s busiest crossing – and toured the El Paso County Migrant Services Center. In 2021, President Biden appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the White House effort to address migration at the U.S. southern border and work with Central American countries to deal with the root causes of migration to the U.S. from the region. Yet the strategy of focusing on conditions in Central America – historically a large portion of migrants coming to the U.S. – has complicated the administration’s response as migration flows have drastically changed, with increasing numbers coming from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Haiti.

Against the backdrop of the visit, the Biden administration announced a program expanding the controversial pandemic public health rule “Title 42,” a Trump-era policy that ensures that many seeking asylum – 29 percent of all encounters in November – are immediately expelled to Mexico on the justification of limiting the spread of COVID-19. Concerns have also been raised that the rule may violate international law on asylum, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, stating that the new policies “risk undermining the basic foundations of international human rights and refugee law. The pandemic rule was set to expire last month but was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court; thousands of migrants had flocked to the border in anticipation of Title 42’s expiration. Despite past condemnation of Title 42 and acknowledgment that the rule exacerbates problems at the border, the Biden administration earlier this month expanded those who would face immediate expulsion to include migrants from Nicaragua, Cuba, and Haiti, many of whom are fleeing repressive regimes or violent conflict in their countries.

In addition to the expansion of Title 42, the administration also proposed a regulation that would disqualify migrants from asylum in the U.S. if they crossed the border illegally without first asking for protection in a third country, such as Mexico. The proposal is similar to a Trump administration policy, which was terminated early in the Biden administration, and would allow U.S. border officials to rapidly deport migrants subject to the restriction, even if Title 42 is ultimately lifted. The expansion of Title 42 to include Nicaraguans, Cubans, and Haitians, as well as the additional border policy proposals, places further pressure on a staggeringly backlogged immigration and asylum system, while possibly infringing on asylum rights codified in U.S. and international law. Alongside these new enforcement policies, the administration did announce that Nicaraguans, Cubans, and Haitians, in addition to Venezuelans who already have access to the program, will be eligible for a small-scale program through which they can enter the U.S. under humanitarian parole. Yet, the parole program is capped at 30,000 total grantees a month – divided among the qualifying nationalities – and only allows grantees to remain in the U.S. for a limited amount of time. The administration has admitted the policies are “temporary Band-Aids,” failing to adequately address the burgeoning humanitarian and security crisis, and has called on Congress to enact more comprehensive immigration reform.

The historic influx in the number of migrants crossing the border has also resulted in overwhelmed reception centers in El Paso and left hundreds of migrants sleeping outside in unsafe conditions; many are exposed to a myriad of environmental risks, as the drop in temperatures presents a real danger for migrants unequipped for cold weather conditions. For those awaiting asylum claims in Mexico, the situation in the encampments is dire, with many confronting food scarcity and a lack of adequate housing. Documented sexual and gender-based violence, kidnapping, overcrowding, limited sanitation, and infrastructure in makeshift camps contribute to untenable living conditions and insecurity.

Rather than serving as a deterrent, the immediate expulsion of migrants has fueled an increase in multiple entry attempts, heightening the demand for people smugglers to assist the crossings, with violent or deadly results. In June, over 50 migrants were discovered dead in an abandoned truck outside San Antonio in what appeared to be the deadliest human smuggling case in modern U.S. history. With legal pathways significantly reduced, an exponentially backlogged asylum system, and dangerous conditions for those waiting out their claims, many migrants are willing to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to get them to the U.S. This demand for smugglers also serves to enrich organized criminal groups, including some of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels. What was once a scattered network of freelance “coyotes” – individuals who smuggle immigrants across the Mexico-U.S. border – has since developed into a multi-billion-dollar international business controlled by organized criminal groups, according to Homeland Security Investigations. As the lucrative business has evolved, it has become virtually impossible for migrants attempting to cross the border to circumvent the cartels, exposing migrants to increased risk of violence, kidnapping, torture, and extortion. As the restrictions at the border intensify, criminal organizations will continue to capitalize and profit from the situation, entrenching national security concerns and fueling the violent root causes that motivate migration.

President Biden’s visit and new border restrictions come as the president faces mounting criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, with members of the Republican party and migrant advocates decrying the administration’s handling of the southern border, albeit for different reasons. Public battles over the policies have played out in the past few months, as the governors of Texas and Arizona have sent thousands of asylum-seekers to New York and Washington D.C., sometimes to Vice President Harris’ home, to – they claim – repudiate and force the federal government to take responsibility for the crisis. Yet, the newly announced set of border policies places the president in opposition to many of his own allies, as some politicians in his own party and migrant advocates have opposed the administration’s enforcement-centric approach. An unfolding controversy surrounding the discovery of two sets of classified documents looks set to distract attention from the already underreported crisis along the southern border. Although the administration has said it is cooperating with the U.S. Department of Justice as it reviews the matter, the announcement has provided fodder for critics and political gamesmanship in Congress. As the controversy and details continue to develop, the crisis at the border risks being eclipsed and obfuscated. As a deeply divided Congress begins a new session, a sustainable and humane solution to the border crisis remains elusive, to the benefit of transnational criminal organizations and the detriment of those seeking protection.