After a week-long tour of the Texas-Mexico border, talking with people about migration and how it is being handled, my takeaway is that the Biden administration needs to get on with it. It is time to bring back normalcy to the flow of people at the border, enhance legal pathways for migration and treat people with respect.
As Biden’s team came into office, there was a lot of discussion about how to reverse the illegal and inhumane asylum policies created by the Trump Administration. They had made it almost impossible to apply for asylum at the US southern border. Added to that were restrictions put into place by the Trump Administration under the guise of Covid-19, limiting border crossing to essential workers.
The question has been, how to navigate reopening the border and return to respecting international standards for asylum access without drawing more undocumented people, including many families requesting protection, to the border. The Biden team wanted to avoid the appearance of chaos on the border as it is used to truncheon Joe Biden politically. They feared that a perceived border “crisis” might derail their broader political agenda.
Since Biden took office, the rules at the border have gotten murky. As Vice President Harris recently reminded Central Americans on her trip to Guatemala, the US border is closed. With the exception of essential workers, that is true, except when it is not.
If you are a desperate to leave your homeland, border closure is not how it looks or what you hear. Unaccompanied children are allowed to enter. This is an important humanitarian change from the Trump administration and seeks to protect the most vulnerable. Families are not allowed to enter, except that some are, because many of Trump’s restrictions on entry are being challenged in US courts and some families covered by these cases are being allowed entry. At times mothers and children are allowed in, but sometimes fathers are not.
Furthermore, the slapdash “system” invented at the border during the Trump administration whereby asylum seekers put their names on a list that governed who was allowed to seek asylum on any given day, has been reinvented. The new temporary system has put non-governmental organizations and attorneys in control of putting names on a new wait list. A role that they do not want and that should not belong to them.
Long-story short, it is a mess. The fact that some people get in and almost no one understands the rules means that more people will come to the border seeking entry. Lack of clarity drives migration. Migrants receive messages and photos from family and friends who have successfully made it from their neighborhood to the U.S. Smugglers take advantage of it by telling potential migrants to “go now because there is an opening that will close soon.”
Then there are the Covid-19 restrictions allowing only essential workers to cross into the US. This policy has been extended through July 21st. Most believe that these restrictions, especially at this point in time, have had little do with protecting the US from Covid-19 and everything to do with the appearance of border control. Because of the restriction, those crossing the US border illegally are most often not detained and deported, but simply pushed back into Mexico. These are “expulsions” and don’t go on the would-be migrant’s permanent record, like a “deportation” would. So those expelled just keep trying to cross. This phenomenon has skewed the data on attempted border crossings by double or triple counting individuals and encourages people to keep trying.
Recent press reports have said that families will soon be allowed to apply for asylum at the border, possibly by the end of July. Clearly the border restrictions will have to end at some point. But there is little certainty about the timing or process for these decisions.
Desperate migrants, who come to the border seeking hope, have been left by both Mexican and US authorities to the care of non-governmental organizations. Local service providers, especially those on the Mexican side told me that they had no idea when or how things would change. The US government would make a decision and they would then have to figure out how to deal with it.
I also heard that the Trump-era Covid-19 border restrictions are contributing to resentment in border communities in the US. Locals, who normally flow back-and-forth across the border, and whose livelihoods often depend on that flow, are kept from crossing. At the same time, they see some undocumented families crossing to seek protection. Their perception is that those following the rules are punished.
Unless we become a completely authoritarian state, like the Soviet Union before the wall came down, we can’t control migration, but we can manage it and make it as clear and lawful as possible. While the Biden administration didn’t create the current mess, it has to address it and it can best do so by making policy decisions that are clear and that expand legal pathways for migration and protection.
Here are a few ideas. The Biden administration recently announced 6,000 temporary US work visas for the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala). While a nice gesture, that number should be massively higher. 6,000 visas for three countries, does not a pathway make. Why not 60,000? Also, make them available fast and give people hope that they might be able to find work through a legal channel.
When it comes to people in need of protection, the US only allows 5,000 refugees from Latin America a year to be processed into the US. The second largest refugee crisis in the world is in Latin America – refugees from Venezuela. There are over 5 million Venezuelan refugees and the vast majority are living in Colombia and other Latin American countries. That is just Venezuela, now take into account those from Central America or Cuba. 5,000 is an absurdly low number. If we want people to pursue refugee status without coming to the US/Mexico border, why not allow in 50,000 refugees from Latin America. That number might convince people that the US is serious about providing protection and I suspect that people would use it.
My message to the Biden administration is this. Stop pretending that you control things that you don’t and start opening more legal pathways for migration and protection that you do control. Follow the advice of public health experts to safely resume the processing of migrants seeking protection and lift restrictions for border communities as soon as possible. Greatly increase the number of refugees from Latin America that will be admitted to the US and greatly increase the temporary visas for workers from Central America and Mexico. Finally, treat the humanitarian organizations on both sides of the border – your allies in all of this – with greater respect. If you want a managed the flow of migrants and not have chaos at the border, these groups need to know what to expect and when.
Small policy changes simply prolong the political pain of restoring normalcy and encourage illegality at the US-Mexico border. These more dramatic shifts in policy may temporarily increase migration and cause some political heartburn, but the current piecemeal approach is confusing and making things worse.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson