WASHINGTON – The Biden administration warned Tuesday that the United States would await further fears along the southwest border this year than ever in the past two decades, underscoring the White House’s urgency to develop solutions to the chronic problems of immigration from Central America.
The dire prediction by Alejandro N. Mayorkas, Minister of Homeland Security, came when President Biden was attacked for handling a surge at the border involving thousands of unaccompanied children and youth from the region – with attacks from the right, because he did not be tough enough and left because he is not human enough.
The president has asked for time and patience, accusing his predecessor of dismantling the immigration system in his zeal to keep foreigners out. But even Mr. Biden’s top advisors acknowledge that after the unwinding of President Donald J. Trump’s tough policies, there is no easy or quick fix to a problem that has been a recurring crisis.
“We have no illusions about how hard it is and we know it will take time,” Mayorkas said in a statement Tuesday as the House and the government prepared to vote on several immigration measures this week hurried to make more housing available to the young migrants arriving at the border. But he added, “We’ll make it.”
The approach developed by the administration includes steps that can take relatively quickly and other steps that take longer and require the approval of Congress or the cooperation of the governments of the Central American states. And it will have to deal with several categories of people, including unaccompanied minors who are now overwhelming the system, and ultimately asylum-seeking families and those trying to get past border officials.
In the short term – as warmer weather invites even more people to migrate north – Mr Biden’s administration must find a way to temporarily care for the thousands of migrant children who arrive at the border with the United States without a guardian.
This includes the expansion of the facilities in which the children can be legally detained for up to 72 hours in the care of the border police. And it means finding more homes where the migrant children can live for weeks or even months while the government looks for a relative or friend to look after them while officials decide whether to return to their home countries.
The government of Biden is working to increase capacity quickly. However, the longer term challenges are even more daunting.
Mr Biden’s advisors have stated that they want to establish systems in Mexico that will allow migrants to make applications for refuge in the United States in an orderly and safe manner without going to the border. However, this will take months and it is not yet clear whether migrants will use them.
For those seeking asylum, Mr Biden’s team has announced that it will shorten the review process, which currently may take years to reach a final decision. Mr Mayorkas has said that asylum cases should be resolved one way or another in weeks. However, to achieve this, money must be invested and staff hired to handle large backlog of cases.
Finally, Mr Biden has vowed to significantly increase support for places like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala so that Central Americans no longer feel the need to flee their homes. But even with the $ 4 billion proposed by the president, rebuilding societies ravaged by violence, gangs, and stagnant economies will take years or decades – if it works at all.
All of the solutions that Mr. Biden has contemplated have been discussed for decades and often incorporated into comprehensive immigration laws that repeatedly failed to get through Congress and fell victim to profound partisan divisions.
Right now, Mr Biden has put in place a Trump-era pandemic emergency rule that allows agents to quickly turn away most other migrants as unaccompanied minors without giving them the opportunity to hear their asylum claims.
Mr Mayorkas’ forecast of the scale of fears this year includes migrants detained in border installations as well as migrants who are swiftly turned away under the pandemic rule. Not included are those who managed to evade border officials entering the country.
“The administration asks for patience, but it only takes so long when you look at these kinds of numbers. And what happens after patience?” Said R. Gil Kerlikowske, a commissioner for customs and border protection under President Barack Obama. “What is the plan to deal with it? What’s the plan for the future? “
Short term solutions
During the current fiscal year, which began October 1, Customs and Border Protection recorded more than 396,000 migrant crossings, including at official ports of entry, compared to around 201,600 in the same period last fiscal year.
Most of these crossings were single adults who, according to the regulations in force, are often quickly returned to Mexico or their home countries. However, unaccompanied children are first taken to a detention center by a border guard, where they are then supposed to be taken to an animal shelter managed by the Ministry of Health and Human Services within 72 hours.
These shelters operated at reduced capacity until recently due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving thousands of minors trapped in jails along the border, including some who were forced to sleep on sheets of plastic film according to lawyers visiting a facility in Texas.
But even before the pandemic, the protection system was often pushed beyond its capabilities.
The Biden government earlier this month directed the shelters to return to their normal capacity, which has allowed the government to increase the number of available beds in these shelters by about 40 percent.
As the number of minors at the border rises, the administration is now looking for additional space, including a convention center in downtown Dallas. in a former camp for oilfield workers in Midland, Texas; at a NASA site in California; and in a tent camp in Arizona.
Mr Biden said during one Interview with ABC News on Tuesday that the administration could have enough shelter by next month for the unaccompanied minors stuck in border fortifications.
The government is also trying to shorten the time it takes to get a child from the border facilities to the shelters by streamlining a system that sends them through three different bureaucracies: the border police, immigration and customs and that Ministry of Health and Human Services. Coordination between the three agencies has often collapsed and resulted in delays.
The Biden government has begun sending officials from the Department of Health and Human Services to border facilities to expedite the search for a relative or other sponsor in the United States to host the migrants.
While the government continues to use the emergency pandemic rule to turn away most adults and migrant families, senior Homeland Security officials have recognized that they can only use the emergency rule while vaccination becomes widely available.
Meanwhile, the president and his top border officials have issued statements about the dangerous journey to the United States in hopes of preventing migration to the border.
The government made a series of private calls to groups and supporters of immigrants last week to discuss Mr Biden’s immigration agenda. David Shahoulian, a senior immigration officer for the Department of Homeland Security, said the news that was preventing migrants from coming had not worked and that administration needs to be clearer in the future, especially given that smugglers continue to target migrants Encourage travel to the United States, according to information from people familiar with the discussion.
Mr Mayorkas said this month that the administration’s message was not “not coming” but “not coming now”. Roberta S. Jacobson, a special assistant who oversees border issues, first mistakenly said in Spanish during a press conference that the border was not closed, but then corrected herself and said it was closed.
On Tuesday, the president had an even more direct message: “I can be very clear: don’t come over,” Biden told ABC News, adding that the administration was working to create opportunities for migrants to apply closer to their homes for asylum. “Don’t leave your town or town.”
The Biden government is working with Central American countries to ease pressure on the border, Shahoulian said on a call. And ways are being explored to speed up the processing of asylum cases.
“We will cut the time it takes to decide on an asylum application from years to months,” Mayorkas said in a statement on Tuesday, adding that the administration will soon introduce a regulation to improve the system. He said the government is working to set up processing centers in Central America so that they can be screened and “taken to the United States if they are eligible for relief under our humanitarian laws and other agencies”.
Mr Biden said on his campaign platform that he would increase the number of judges and immigration officers to tackle a backlog that nearly doubled to more than 1.2 million cases during the Trump administration.
Mr. Biden has already started Restart the Obama-era Central American Minors ProgramThis should allow some children to apply in their home region to live with a parent or other relative in the United States. By the time Mr. Trump finished the program, approximately 3,000 Central American children had been admitted to travel to the United States.
It will take time for the program, which has strict screening requirements, to come up to validate the relationships of the children and their loved ones.
Now the administration is keen to consider even wider efforts to consider asylum applications remotely.
A system is already being tested in which migrants who have been ordered by the Trump administration to wait at the border in poor camps in Mexico can use an app on their cell phones to apply for asylum and track their cases. This type of system could be expanded further, officials said.
“This is the roadmap for a system that is safe, orderly and fair,” Mayorkas said.
Much of the changes Mr Biden wants are in the comprehensive immigration legislation he sent to Congress on his first day in office. But this bill is still a long way from becoming law, especially if Mr Trump and other Republicans once again use immigration to strengthen their partisan base.
Long term solutions
Mr Biden’s most ambitious and difficult goal is to use the wealth and diplomatic power of the United States to reshape the region in hopes of reducing the causes of migration from Central America, starting with poverty and violence.
It’s an effort that has been tried before. Mr. Obama and members of Congress from both parties agreed to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Central America to improve the courts, reduce cartels, and improve economic conditions.
Mr. Trump cut that spending, arguing it was a waste of money before restoring any part of it. However, Mr. Biden’s team is counting on more investments to produce results. In Honduras, for example, the country’s coffee production has been impacted by hurricanes and falling coffee bean prices, driving many people into poverty.
However, it could take years to reverse these economic trends.
“When the president talks about ‘root causes’, part of it is immediate humanitarian aid, but much of it is policy and aid combined to make sure you address root causes of migration,” said Ms. Jacobson. “Otherwise you will see continued cycles.”