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Border backtracking

The U.S.-Mexico border isn’t open, but a migrant surge and a mishmash of messages and policies have created another crisis

Border backtracking

Migrants from Central America, seeking U.S. asylum, arrive in Texas after crossing the Rio Grande in an inflatable boat. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

A disoriented-looking Honduran man clutched the arm of his 8-year-old daughter as though someone would snatch her away—and that was a good possibility. Local cartels have eyes everywhere at the border between Reynosa, Mexico, and McAllen, Texas. But the man didn’t even know where he was.

They had crossed the border into the United States somewhere else the day before. By next morning, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials had expelled them to Reynosa under a pandemic-era public health statute called Title 42. I saw them climb out of a white CBP van with about 10 other migrants from Central America and Mexico, then wander from the international bridge to a busy intersection.

“This is Reynosa,” a woman warned him when she saw him standing still, looking lost: “Es muy peligroso. You can’t just stand around here.” The man nodded and gripped his daughter’s arm tighter. The girl leaned on the crook of his arm, her hazel eyes fluttering with fatigue. She wore a Minnie Mouse sweatshirt and pink shoes. The father wore a blue button-down shirt and jeans. They carried nothing else.

Rees Latif/Reuters/Alamy

Francisco, from Honduras, cradles his 9-month-old daughter after crossing the Rio Grande on a raft into the United States. (Rees Latif/Reuters/Alamy)

The father, who declined to give his name, said he lost his job and couldn’t feed his family after two hurricanes hit Honduras and Guatemala. The pandemic destroyed an already tattered economy, and organized crime ravaged his neighborhood. Friends told him to seek asylum in the United States: “Now’s the time to go,” they urged, saying President Joe Biden had opened the border. So the man left. The only way to survive, he thought, was to find employment in the United States and send money back home. He and his daughter traveled by bus to the U.S.-Mexican border to seek asylum. 

But his friends were wrong: The border is not open. 

So on this day in late March, they stood dazed, staring at a cartel-ridden city in a foreign country, without money to return home. “I’m asking God what to do,” the father said, raising his eyes to the sky. A block away at a small public park, about 200 migrants lay on mats fashioned out of filthy blankets and scrunched-up jackets—all homeless and penniless after being expelled within the last several weeks. 

When the Trump administration ended, the Biden administration stepped in promising a more compassionate border enforcement. But the reality at the border has not changed much. Though Biden has unwound some of former President Donald Trump’s hard-line border policies—most notably the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), sometimes known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy—he has turned away most migrants by keeping Title 42. While mixed messages prompt new waves of migrants to head for the U.S. border, a backlogged and broken immigration system keeps many of them waiting in border camps or crude U.S. facilities.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP

Homeless migrants expelled from the United States sleep under a gazebo at a public park in Reynosa. (Dario Lopez-Mills/AP)

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION first cited Title 42 in March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19, and it effectively rendered the asylum system inaccessible. Under Title 42, border officials have expelled more than 350,000 migrants and asylum-seekers at the southern border, including about 16,000 unaccompanied children, without asylum interviews. On Nov. 18, 2020, a district court order blocked Trump officials from expelling unaccompanied children. Biden officials have allowed unaccompanied minors in for humanitarian reasons but have otherwise continued expelling the majority of people crossing the border, including asylum-seekers and families such as that Honduran man and his 8-year-old daughter.

After a brief lull during the pandemic, the number of CBP encounters at the southwest border has steadily increased since last summer. Then it spiked from 78,442 to 100,441 between January and February. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned in a statement that the United States is “on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.”

A surge in border apprehensions is neither unexpected nor unprecedented. The CBP usually sees seasonal spikes in the spring, and the number of unauthorized migrants released into the United States, including unaccompanied minors, is still lower than in 2014, 2016, and 2019. The statistics on encounters can also be deceiving: They include counts of the same individuals attempting to cross multiple times. Because Title 42 rapidly expels individuals with fewer penalties, more people have tried crossing the border again and again after expulsion. Single adults made up about 71 percent of the southwest border apprehensions in February.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP

Unaccompanied minors wait for their turn at the secondary processing station inside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas. (Dario Lopez-Mills/AP)

The new problem is the spike in unaccompanied minors crossing the border when the government doesn’t have the capacity to house them all, partly due to pandemic restrictions. In January, border agents encountered 5,694 unaccompanied children at the southwest border. That number shot up to 9,297 in February. About 75 percent of these children are ages 15 to 17, but some of them are 6 or younger. Federal law only allows them to spend 72 hours in Border Patrol facilities, which were never equipped to hold children. But a CBP senior official said the average migrant is spending about 90 hours there in overcrowded conditions. As of April 5, about 4,700 unaccompanied children were being held in Border Patrol facilities and another 14,300 in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) facilities and other makeshift shelters.

Many Republican leaders flew down to the border to film themselves blaming Biden’s “open border” policies for the border crisis. They say halting MPP lights a “welcome sign” at the border. But progressive Democrats are equally displeased with Biden: They point out he should have been better prepared to handle the thousands of unaccompanied children. They’re also upset that he’s still expelling asylum-seekers under Title 42.

Immigration experts say what we’re seeing is a crisis that’s years in the making. Historically, the vast majority of unauthorized border crossers have been single adults from Mexico. In the last several years, a growing population crossing the border are asylum-seeking families and children fleeing extreme poverty and violence in Central America (and now increasingly from southern Mexico). 

Instead of addressing these larger, long-term forces, the Trump administration relied on policies like MPP and family separation to deter people from entering the United States. Since early 2019, Trump officials forced more than 71,000 asylum-seekers to await their cases in Mexico under MPP, which immigration experts and advocates say created a humanitarian mess and logistical chaos at the border.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP

Fatima Nayeli (center), 13, her sister Cynthia Stacy, 8, and Davidson Jair, 7, answer questions after they were smuggled on an inflatable raft across the Rio Grande in Roma, Texas. All three children traveled from El Salvador in the hope of reaching relatives living in the United States. (Dario Lopez-Mills/AP)

WHILE TRUMP WAS CLEAR about his anti-immigration stance, Biden’s messaging has been wishy-washy. He campaigned on ending Trump-era immigration policies, but Biden has since backtracked as his team struggles to tamp the migration flow to the border. From the start, White House officials have warned hopeful migrants not to leave their country. By mid-March, White House southern border coordinator Roberta Jacobson announced a clearer message: “The message isn’t, ‘Don’t come now,’ it’s, ‘Don’t come in this way, ever.’ The way to come to the United States is through legal pathways.”

That’s not what people are hearing in their hometowns. Amalia Perez Perez, a 35-year-old indigenous farmer from ­Chiapas, an impoverished southeastern Mexican state, arrived at the Mata­moros-Brownsville border seeking asylum in early March with her husband and three children. She told me she heard on local broadcast news that the Biden administration was “letting in people like us.” The news probably meant MPP enrollees, but Perez misunderstood that Biden had opened doors to all asylum-seekers. 

At the time, local political groups were warring one another and threatening farmers in her community. Perez feared mostly for her 17-year-old son, because these groups often forcibly ­recruit teenage boys. So in January, Perez’s family packed up and traveled north, only to discover that the border was closed. 

Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times/Redux

Vilma Iris Peraza, 28, from Honduras, collapses crying with her two children on the Paso del Norte bridge in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, after finding out they were expelled from the United States. (Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times/Redux)

Now they’re staying at a church shelter in Matamoros, Mexico, uncertain of where to go. Perez says they cannot go back to Chiapas, and they feel unsafe anywhere in Mexico, where organized crime groups are well connected everywhere. When she and her husband discuss their future, “I get very sad and stressed,” Perez told me: “The only thing we can do is pray that the Lord will touch the heart of Biden and let us in.”

Such misinformation travels swiftly through word of mouth and only benefits smugglers and cartels all too happy to fuel and capitalize on it. Their victims are migrants themselves. Wendy Marta, a 26-year-old woman who’s five months pregnant, said she left Honduras two months ago with her 6-year-old daughter and her 40-year-old mother. The father of her children had recently abandoned her, and she was afraid of threats of violence in her hometown. “We heard the border is open,” Marta told me.

Her family crossed the border about a month ago, but U.S. officials expelled them into Reynosa. When I met them, they had been sleeping outdoors by the bridge for weeks, with two backpacks and no shoes. When the Mexican police kicked them out, they moved to a public park nearby. Like the infamous migrant camp that burgeoned to about 2,500 homeless asylum-seekers in Matamoros, that park in Reynosa is becoming a makeshift campsite for expelled migrants like Marta, many of them families with young children. And it’s about to get worse. 

Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty Images

Migrants run to cross the Rio Grande to get to El Paso, Texas. (Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty Images)

BESIDES THE CHALLENGES at the border itself, the U.S. also faces the longer-term challenges of fixing a gutted asylum system and unclogging immigration courts, which have more than two years’ worth of backlogged cases. Some asylum-seekers probably won’t qualify for asylum because they’re primarily looking for work, not fleeing persecution.

Biden officials said they will expedite the asylum process so that asylum-seekers can receive a decision in weeks, not years. That means those who are legitimately fleeing violence can find faster relief, while others who came for economic reasons will be swiftly sent back, which may disincentivize others from seeking asylum. Biden’s advisers said they want to create legal pathways to apply for protection in the United States while in other countries, and Biden’s sweeping immigration reform bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, includes ambitious provisions to address the “root causes” of migration.

Leaders from both sides agree that the immigration system is long overdue for comprehensive reform, but the White House’s bill faces a steep hill in Congress, which has focused on piecemeal reforms.

Meanwhile, the situation at the border is grim: Mexican border towns are still filled with desperate people seeking any means of survival. Erick Maradiaga, a 34-year-old asylum-seeker, said he fled Honduras after receiving death threats from cartels. It took him two weeks to convince his 12-year-old son to cross the border alone with his 13-year-old daughter. The boy cried, “But what if you die here? What if I never see you again?” 

By then, Maradiaga and his children had been living in a tent at the makeshift migrant camp in Matamoros for more than six months due to MPP. Each time Maradiaga heard about yet another asylum-seeker being kidnapped or attacked by cartels, or saw bloated corpses floating in the river, he trembled. About half of the migrants at the camp sent their children alone across the border.

It was a chilly Sunday night when his children crossed. He took one last picture of them standing in the dark. The girl wore a bright pink jacket, the boy a black sweatshirt. They both wore brave smiles. Maradiaga watched them cross the international bridge from below at the camp. He couldn’t cry out goodbye, and his kids couldn’t turn around to wave at him, knowing authorities would turn them back if they knew their father was present. 

That was January 2020, the last time Maradiaga saw his children in person. They reunited with their mother in Kansas City, Mo. She had crossed the border first with another 4-year-old son in March 2019, just before the Trump administration expanded MPP across the entire southern border. Today, Maradiaga is still stuck in Mexico by himself. As he talked about his family, his eyes began dripping, and he wept silently for a few minutes. Before, he used to pray that God would change Trump’s heart. Now, he prays for Biden’s heart.

John Moore/Getty Images

(John Moore/Getty Images)

Who’s getting in?

Currently, immigration officials are releasing only three categories of migrant populations into the U.S.: unaccompanied migrant children under the age of 18; asylum-seekers enrolled under MPP, whom the Biden administration is allowing into the U.S. in gradual trickles; and some families with children under age 7 who crossed in certain areas. 

Due to a new child protection law, Mexican authorities in the Tamaulipas state (which borders the Rio Grande Valley) are refusing to accept families with young children. The Biden administration is flying many such families to other sectors in El Paso and San Diego, expelling about 100 people a day to Mexico from there. But according to a CBP official, the majority of families with young children are being released to sponsors in the U.S., a policy some call “catch and release.” 

Even some Demo­crats in border communities are criticizing that policy: “When you create a system that incentivizes people to come across, and they are released, that immediately sends a message to Central America that if you come across you can stay,” Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, whose South Texas district sits near the border with Mexico, told The Washington Post

Biden officials said they’re working with Mexico to expand their capacity to accept these families. —S.L. 

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Fri, 04/09/2021 04:08 am

    Allowing open borders only creates chaos and injustice. All the social justice warriors show their true dishonesty and hypocrisy, where they blamed Trump before but they fail to call out Biden for what is happening now. Trump's approach was to shut down the illegal immigration, thus preventing so much injustice. Kids are being sent by themselves to the United States and many are dying. Here is a kid who was left by himself in the desert. Is this justice? My blood boils seeing this!  

    Here is another case where two small children were left crying in the California wilderness!

    And they have no problem dropping two small children 14 ft over a border wall in the dark. 

    Here are two more small children found wondering along the Texas border without food or water. It also tells of an 6 month old baby being thrown into the Rio Grand by smugglers. 

    Here is evidence that some children are dying on our border.

    Here is a case where the border patrol agents are trying to revive a 9 year old girl who fell in the Rio Grand. You hear them trying to revive the girl but to no avail where she later died. 

    If you cannot see that Trump is a much better man than Biden, there is not much help for you!

    Is this crisis really years in the making? I don't think so for this only deflects away from Biden and his rhetoric about opening up the border. The real truth is that the cartels control the border!

  • DakotaLutheran
    Posted: Fri, 04/09/2021 09:36 am

    I am amazed by the vast majority of these people. Traveling long distances, investing their entire fortunes, in the hope of moving to a land where they may know no one, where they don't speak the native language, to a culture and world for which they are ill prepared, takes enormous courage and desperation. They would, in many ways, be far better off staying where they are. 

    America ought to spend far more time and money trying to improve the conditions of the people where they live. It seems that for the most part people undergoing these hardships and risks are coming for economic reasons, these issues can be addressed. Even the drug cartels are probably a response to economic problems. 

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Fri, 04/09/2021 07:12 pm

    DakotaLuthern, I think you are right where more effort should be focused on destroying the gangs and creating solid countries in Central and South America. If there was one area I could criticize Trump was in not extending more effort in these regions to promote the political stability of these countries. 

  • not silent
    Posted: Fri, 04/09/2021 12:42 pm

    I can't speak for everyone, of course; but even the most liberal people I know (i.e. people who supported Bernie Sanders and who admire AOC) are not in favor of "open borders." There may be some who DO support literal open borders, but I doubt that applies to the vast majority of people in the US, whether they are liberal or conservative. I'm pointing this out because I think the term is used to characterize people who question any conservative person or policy and produce immediate outrage against them, whether or not that outrage is actually justified. It reminds me of a situation in the past when I questioned something on a conservative website, and the other person immediately went off on me with a lecture about how "communism doesn't work."  My question had nothing to do with communism.  I was flabbergasted and asked, "Do you think I'm a COMMUNIST?" and the converation basically shut down after that.  I realized later that my question had highlighted a false belief that some people had at the time: that merely questioning a conservative somehow made me a communist or meant I needed to hear why capitalism is better than communism.  Likewise, just because someone questions a conservative person or position, it does not mean they are for "open borders."  Acting as if they do tends to shut down any further reasonable discussion.

    I do think it's true that there has been quite a bit of dishonestly and hypocrisy about the situation at the border, and it has caused great pain for many people. But, just because I agree that the current situaiton is marked by dishonesty and hypocrisy does not mean that I prefer the policies of the previous adminstration!  Frankly, I don't think either of the major political parties has figured out the best way to deal with this crisis; and I think the tendency of both to cover that fact with political posturing and pointing fingers at the other side has only made things worse.   

    For Cyborg, specifically: I agree with you that these things are heartbreaking and even infuriating, and I understand why they make your blood boil. But exaggeration and misinformation will not help those poor people. Specifically, it is inaccurate to act as if these problems began with Mr. Biden (i.e., you said that the borders were controlled by the cartels, but surely you don't think the cartels suddenly took over when Mr. Biden was elected!). There have been "migrant caravans" for years, and some of them happened when Mr. Trump was president. I personally find it frustrating that Mr. Trump was criticized for creating a "crisis" and that Mr. Biden intially "got a pass" on a similar (and possibly worse) crisis. But, as I already expressed above, it seems clear that neither major political party has figured out how to deal with the large numbers of refugees and migrants who keep coming to this country in a way that is fair, just, and compassionate. 

    I also get that you disagree with me and others like me who could not in good conscience vote for either Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump, and I'm okay with that because I think it was a very difficult choice for most people.  But it is very frustrating that you seem intent on attacking me and others who, like you, did not vote for Mr. Biden and do not support all his policies.  Even worse, you seem to blame us for policies and platforms we never supported and had no role in implementing-and which were put in place by someone we did NOT VOTE FOR!  

    For Dakota Lutheran: I don't think it's possible for people who are used to relative propsperity and stable government systems to understand the desperation people feel in the absence of those things and how they might cling to any hope that things could be better elsewhere.   It's hard to read about the terrible situations these people are in right now, and it's tempting to blame them for the way things are; but I think corrupt governments, corrupt systems, people who take advantage of others who are suffering for their own advantage, and, ultimately Satan and his lies are more to blame.  I pray that God gives wisdom to all who are involved in this terrible situation.