Migrant Crossing Surges Aren’t New. Why Is the Border Overwhelmed?


President Biden’s tenure has coincided with a global rise in migration, and the pressure has been felt acutely at the United States’ southern border. Officials caught migrants crossing the border without authorization more than five million times from February 2021 to March this year, according to the most recent data available — the highest number of arrests in decades.

Officials are bracing for a bigger surge after the Biden administration lifts an emergency health rule, known as Title 42, that has been used millions of times to swiftly expel migrants.

Some 660,000 migrants were waiting in Mexico earlier this month, most likely poised to cross into the United States in the coming days and weeks, according to a Homeland Security intelligence analysis obtained by The New York Times. And migrants are still making their way north through Central America.

On Tuesday, border officials apprehended more than 11,000 migrants who had crossed illegally, according to internal data, an increase over the 7,000 to 8,000 crossings a day last week.

Raul L. Ortiz, the Border Patrol chief, on Wednesday estimated there were 60,000 to 65,000 migrants waiting along Mexico’s northern border.

The border and the U.S. immigration system are not equipped to manage so many people. But crossing into the United States illegally has become, for many, the only option as fewer legal ways exist.

Here is why the border is buckling under surges in migration.

The most recent major U.S. laws for refugees, asylum seekers and immigration enforcement date to the 1980s and ’90s. None have been significantly updated to adapt to modern challenges.

For instance, the limits on visas allowing people to work in the United States were based on the size of its economy in the 1990s. These limits have largely remained the same, even though the economy has since grown more than twice as large.

In addition, the facilities built on the border were originally designed to hold Mexican men who crossed illegally in search of work. They resemble jail-like settings where people are crammed into a single space. The government has acknowledged that these facilities are not safe to hold children and other vulnerable populations. Over the past decade, the United States has set up additional temporary spaces to accommodate the needs of families and children, but it is still not enough to address the large numbers of people entering the country.

Enforcement measures at the border were largely devised for migrants who were trying to evade being caught by the authorities, not for thousands of people fleeing humanitarian crises who turn themselves in to the authorities once they reach the border, many hoping to seek asylum.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers have failed to reach a compromise on how to update the outdated laws because of a broader disagreement about who should be allowed to enter and stay in the United States and for how long. The issue has become so polarizing that members of the same political party differ on what revisions to the law should look like on a range of matters, such as offering respite to migrants in need and adding foreign workers to the U.S. work force.

One of the biggest reasons for the increase in migration is the number of failed and authoritarian states in the Western Hemisphere. Struggling economies worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, humanitarian crises and political upheaval have sent people fleeing their homes for a safer and more stable life in the United States.

For many migrants, including those from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the situation is so desperate that the risk of making the dangerous journey and potentially being turned away by U.S. officials is preferable to continuing to live in dire conditions.

“Failing states across the Western Hemisphere is the disease,” said Jason Houser, a former top immigration official in the Biden administration. “The flow of migrants to the border, overwhelming our agencies, is the symptom.”

Whenever there is a surge in migration, border officials are quickly overwhelmed because of a limited capacity to hold people in custody. So migrants are often released with the expectation that they will check in with officials and show up for their day in immigration court. The federal government has long relied on border communities to provide respite stops and shelters for the migrants. Still, while federal funding has increased in the past year, it is not enough to address the needs of nonprofits and local governments.

Tensions are already high in the border towns. At least eight migrants were killed in Brownsville, Texas, on Sunday after the driver of an S.U.V. barreled into a crowd standing by a homeless shelter that helps migrants. There were also reports of migrants sleeping in the streets of El Paso because shelters were at capacity. In an unusual move, the Homeland Security Department ordered border and immigration officials into El Paso communities on Tuesday to apprehend people who had crossed illegally without detection. This operation led to hundreds of migrants turning themselves in to the authorities, clearing some of the more crowded areas.

The federal government also does not have a plan to safely transport released migrants to other U.S. cities or offer enough support to local governments, which help the migrants once they are there. In addition, migrants are not able to apply for work authorization in the United States for months. Working legally could help them cover their housing costs and take some pressure off cities.

When migrants are released from border custody with instructions to show up at court on a certain date, the large backlog of cases waiting before the courts grows. Lately, court dates are being scheduled years out. Many of the migrants coming into the United States will join the more than 11 million already in the country who do not have a path to stay permanently.

There are also backlogs at other federal agencies involved in processing legal asylum requests, such as visas and attempts to reunite with family members who are already in the country.



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