Well, that didn’t take long. A border crisis is brewing before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
Migrant caravans are forming in Honduras, where residents were hit with a pair of devastating hurricanes last month, adding to the economic hardship caused by COVID-19. Faced with ruin, many Hondurans have decided to defy local travel bans and head north.
“People are no longer scared of the coronavirus,” one caravan organizer told Bloomberg. “They’re going hungry, they’ve lost everything, and some towns are still flooded.” The organizer added that migrants are savvy about shifts in US border policy: “When there is a change in government in the US or Mexico, caravans start to move, because they are testing the waters to see how authorities respond.”
By now, Central Americans should have a pretty good idea how the authorities will respond in a Biden administration — and not just because smugglers, called “coyotes,” keep migrants well-informed in hopes of profiting off their desperation.
During the presidential campaign, Biden promised to reverse President Trump’s strict immigration and border policies, which together with emergency travel restrictions because of the pandemic helped drive illegal-immigration levels to historic lows after a surge last spring; numbers are once again increasing as conditions deteriorate in Central America.
Specifically, Biden has said he will stop construction on the border wall, reinstate DACA, boost the number of refugees and make it easier for migrants to claim asylum. On asylum seekers, Biden has promised to end Team Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program, which requires Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States to wait in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated. The goal of the program is to prevent asylum seekers from absconding before their court date.
To understand why the Trump administration created the program, a bit of background is in order. During the Obama administration, a surge in unaccompanied minors and Central-American families seeking asylum in 2014 initially prompted authorities to detain families together.
But when a federal judge in 2015 ruled that minors couldn’t be detained for more than 20 days, with or without their parents, the Obama administration switched to a policy of “catch and release”: When families were caught crossing the border illegally, they would be processed and released into the United States after a few days, with orders to appear before an immigration judge at some future date. Once released, many of these would-be asylum seekers simply disappeared.
In spring 2018, Team Trump tried to end “catch and release,” first by separating families stopped at the border and detaining both parents and children, triggering an intense backlash and court challenges that persuaded Trump to end the policy after only a few months.
But ending family separation didn’t solve the asylum crisis. With illegal border crossings on the rise in early 2019, Trump began rolling out “Remain in Mexico” in cooperation with Mexican authorities. He also put pressure on Mexico to police its porous southern border with Guatemala, threatening tariffs on Mexican imports if Mexico didn’t do more to control illegal immigration.
Mexico cooperated, and the result was a plunge in illegal immigration beginning in June last year. Travel restrictions associated with the novel-coronavirus pandemic also helped slow border crossings this spring and summer.
But the usual drivers of illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America — economic hardship, grinding poverty and natural disasters — are once again pushing people to seek a better life in the United States. The number of people apprehended or deemed inadmissible along the southwest border has increased for six straight months, to more than 69,000 in October, from 17,000 in April.
They are coming because they have no jobs, and in some cases no homes, thanks to the hurricanes. They are coming because relatives and friends in the United States are telling them to come, that they will find work here. They are coming because coyotes and smuggling networks that profit off illegal immigration are offering to get them over the border — for a price.
But they are also coming, now, because Biden has promised to make it easier for them to get in.
These are the first caravans from Central America the incoming Biden administration will have to deal with, but they won’t be the last.