9 questions about the humanitarian crisis on the border, answered

“The Biden administration is struggling to accommodate an increasing number of unaccompanied children arriving on the border. About 70 percent of them are teenagers, but hundreds are under the age of 12.

As of March 24, more than 5,100 such children, a record number, were in US Customs and Border Protection custody, staying in unsuitable, jail-like facilities, often for longer than the 72-hour legal limit.

Another 11,900 children were in custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. Those children are staying either in permanent shelters — state-licensed facilities that are better equipped to administer care but have had to slash capacity amid the pandemic — or in temporary influx facilities that have comparatively little oversight. So far, the Biden administration has opened or is in the processing of opening six of these temporary facilities in Texas and California and is trying to expand space in others.”

“The increase in arrivals among unaccompanied children is happening even though, for the most part, the border remains closed. Last March, at the outset of the pandemic, Trump invoked Title 42, a section of the Public Health Safety Act that allows the US government to temporarily block noncitizens from entering the US “when doing so is required in the interest of public health.” Since then, more than 514,000 migrants have been expelled, including more than 13,000 children.

Biden has chosen to keep the policy in place. He has carved out some exceptions: In addition to unaccompanied children, the administration has started processing 28,000 people who were sent back to Mexico to await their immigration court hearings in the US under a Trump-era program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or the “Remain in Mexico” program.

The administration has also been admitting many families to the US because a change in Mexican law has limited the country’s capacity to detain those with young children. A CBP official told reporters on Friday that agents are encountering about 2,300 parents and children daily and 1,900 are being allowed to stay in the US.” 

“They are primarily coming from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, which for years have been suffering from gang-related violence, government corruption, frequent extortion, and some of the highest rates of poverty and violent crime in the world.

The pandemic-related economic downturn and a pair of hurricanes late last year that devastated Honduras and Guatemala in particular have only exacerbated those more longstanding problems. Many people are hoping to apply for asylum or other humanitarian protections, and the US is obligated by federal law and international human rights agreements to give them that chance.

The majority of unaccompanied children arriving on the border also have family in the US, so they’re aiming to reunite with their relatives.” 

“Single adults still account for the vast majority of people who are arriving (about 71 percent), but the number of unaccompanied children arriving on the border is unprecedented. There are more than 17,000 currently in government custody and an average of 466 arriving daily as of March 24. By comparison, CBP apprehended 11,475 unaccompanied children in May 2019, the last time that migration levels spiked.”

“Though Biden administration officials have warned that the US could encounter more migrants on the southern border than they have in 20 years, experts have cautioned against calling the current flow of migrants a “surge” for several reasons.

Migration levels tend to fluctuate based on the season. The number of migrants arriving on the border has historically increased in the warmer months between about February and June when the journey is less treacherous than it would be in the hot summer sun.

What we’re observing on the border is in part a “predictable seasonal shift,” as Tom K. Wong, an associate professor at the University of California San Diego, and his co-authors write in the Washington Post.

“When the numbers drop again in June and July, policymakers may be tempted to claim that their deterrence policies succeeded. But that will just be the usual seasonal drop,” they write.

There was also an almost 50 percent drop in migration at the border following the implementation of the pandemic-era border restrictions last March, rather than a typical seasonal increase. It’s likely that those restrictions “delayed prospective migrants rather than deterred them — and they’re arriving now,” they add.” 

“There’s also reason to believe the number of migrants encountered by Border Patrol overall is inflated. Title 42 created perverse incentives for single adults to attempt to cross the border multiple times. Before the pandemic, they might have been dissuaded from trying again for fear of facing criminal prosecution for illegal entry and disqualifying themselves from legal migration pathways, such as asylum. But under the pandemic-era process, they are merely fingerprinted, processed, and dropped off in Mexico without consequence.”

“On top of the factors pushing people out of their home countries, four years of Trump’s policies have created pent-up demand. Migrants correctly perceive that Biden is seeking to take a more humane approach than his predecessor and see an opportunity to seek refuge in the US where they did not before.”

“Smugglers have sought to capitalize on that desperation by spreading misinformation about the Biden administration’s plans to process asylum seekers.”

“Title 42 has also created an incentive for families to choose to separate. Parents have sent their children to the border alone, knowing that they would be accepted by US authorities, while they await a chance to cross either in Mexico or their home countries. That has been the case since last fall, when a court forced the Trump administration to begin accepting unaccompanied children.”

“Republicans have been eager to call this a “Biden border crisis.” Migration levels were already rising in the months before he took office, but because Trump was expelling nearly all migrants arriving on the border, they were largely invisible”

“Trump’s policies, which promised to deter migrants from attempting to cross the southern border, were ultimately unsuccessful, instead creating pent-up demand that is only beginning to become evident now. And the Trump administration did nothing to improve conditions in the Northern Triangle that were driving people to flee, even revoking some $4 billion in aid.”

“Republicans have criticized Biden for not being strong enough in telling migrants they’re not welcome. But his administration has been clear that the border is “not open” and that they should not come in an “irregular fashion.” As political pressure has ramped up, he has been even more strict, telling migrants in a recent interview with ABC “don’t come,” “don’t leave your town or city or community,” and that they would soon be able to “apply for asylum in place.”

The White House has been amplifying that messaging with more than 17,000 radio ads in Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras since January 21, playing in Spanish, Portuguese, and six Indigenous languages and reaching an estimated 15 million people. There have also been ad campaigns on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter”


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