Here’s what’s happening at the border and how it could affect Democrats’ chances to stay in power in November’s midterm elections.
Border crossings are up. Why?
A variety of reasons. There’s a huge labor demand in the United States right now, and the Mexican economy in particular is lagging. (Most of the people trying to cross are Mexicans, but there is a significant flow of people from other countries across the region, like Cubans and Colombians.) The pandemic has exacerbated the struggles of local economies and uprooted many people from their communities.
And there’s a general sense, fairly or not, that it’s easier to cross now than ever because Biden is president, compared with Donald Trump, who was known globally for his anti-immigration rhetoric and policies.
About 15,000 Ukrainians escaping war have come to Mexico to be allowed across the border. They were largely welcomed and given one-year humanitarian parole in the United States, reports The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff. (The administration has started denying them access at the southern border as they roll out a program to allow Ukrainians into the country by other means.) But Ukrainians are still only a small fraction of the people trying to cross the border.
How many people are crossing the border?
To understand the politics of the border requires understanding the numbers coming from it. There are many ways to break down the data. Here are three big ones.
1. People who cross illegally and are never caught: The nature of this stat is that it’s difficult to track. But there are cameras stationed on remote outposts along the border, and Post immigration reporter Nick Miroff says that border officials have acknowledged that anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 of these border crossings a day are detected but not intercepted.
2. People who are apprehended: This is the number you’ll hear about the most, because it’s what the government measures most consistently. “Apprehensions” measures how many times the government encounters someone at the border who doesn’t have legal authorization to enter the country. This is a gauge of how busy U.S. Customs Border Protection is, rather than a full counting of people trying to cross. Most people apprehended at the border have been turned away, under the Title 42 public health code that Biden plans to end soon: In the past six months, the government has apprehended, and then removed, people at the border some 549,000 times.
3. People who are apprehended and then processed by immigration authorities: These are people who cross the border, get processed by immigration officials and who are let go to various ends, like applying for asylum. Over the past six months, about 500,000 people were taken into custody but not immediately expelled. Some were deported, but most remain in the United States pending a court hearing. It can take years for their asylum cases to resolve, and many people just end up staying in the country, under the radar.
So, of the roughly 1 million or more apprehensions at the border in the past six months, about half have resulted in people being immediately kicked back out, and less than half have resulted in people being processed by immigration authorities. The second group includes people allowed to stay in the country and apply for asylum and other humanitarian statuses.
All three numbers have reached historic highs, said Jessica Bolter with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, “but it’s not the case that everyone who comes to the border gets in.”
How high are border crossings historically?
Here’s a visual comparison of apprehensions at the border, going back to the Obama administration.
About half of those apprehended in the past six months were sent back to their home country. Slightly less than half were let in to apply for asylum or other humanitarian statuses.
How Title 42 factors into all of this
Title 42 is a public health order put in place by the Trump administration that allows the government to send migrants back to their home countries, rather than hold them in detention at the border and process them. Though it’s controversial, the Biden administration kept the policy for more than a year, to prevent the border from becoming unmanageable. It plans to phase it out in May.
But that move is now tangled up in legal wrangling: A group of Republican attorneys general sued to keep the policy in place, and a federal judge in Louisiana agreed to temporarily block the Biden administration from lifting it.
Lifting this policy will likely mean that migrants will think it’s easier to come to the border and apply for asylum. And border crossings will likely spike.
“We expect migration levels to increase as smugglers seek to take advantage of and profit from vulnerable migrants,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told Congress recently.
“Once someone makes it across the border, if they’re not expelled under Title 42, there is a pretty good chance they will be able to stay in the United States at least for several years,” said Bolter from the Migration Policy Institute, adding that this is truer for families traveling together.
The administration worries that this dynamic could send an influx of migrants to communities along the U.S.-Mexico border that aren’t prepared to handle them. That could create humanitarian crises on the border — and major political problems for Biden.
This is putting pressure on Biden on all sides
Biden has struggled politically with the border since he took office. Attempted crossings rose when he became president, under the belief that he would be more lenient to migrants than Trump was.
We’ve seen some troubling images arise from crowded border situations, like that of a White Border Patrol agent on horseback trying to catch Haitian men.
Biden is facing political pressure from all sides on immigration policy. Republicans and some moderate, vulnerable Democrats on the ballot in November say Biden shouldn’t lift Title 42 because it will create chaos at the border.
Republicans point to the high number of apprehensions as evidence that the Biden administration being in over its head. “The border crisis is raging unchecked,” the Republican National Committee recently said. The GOP is also trying to connect these numbers to the fentanyl drug crisis in America, since the illegal, synthetic version of the drug can be smuggled from Mexico.
Biden’s defenders counter that the high number of apprehensions show that border security is strong — and that Republicans can’t claim Biden has an open-border policy while also urging Biden to continue keeping a Trump-era restriction.
Liberal activists, meanwhile, are criticizing the Biden administration as being no better than Trump’s: “It’s an abomination that the Biden administration did not lift Title 42 a long time ago,” former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro told The Post’s Annie Linskey and Miroff in March.
This is all resonating beyond border states. As Linskey and Miroff report, more than a third of voters in Wisconsin, which has some very competitive congressional races this November, said in a recent poll they were “very concerned” over illegal immigration.
As Republicans try to recapture the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) traveled to the border in April and claimed that Biden isn’t doing enough to stop the flow of migrants into the country. “This crisis is created by the presidential policies of this new administration,” he said.
How Biden has changed Trump’s immigration policies
Other than keeping Title 42 in place, Biden has softened Trump’s immigration policies quite a bit.
His administration has cut way back on deporting people who are already in the country illegally. Arrests last year fell to their lowest levels since at least 2015.
He ditched Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which required many migrants to stay in Mexico while they wait for decisions on their asylum claims. A federal judge later forced the administration to reinstate it. In April the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case, Biden v. Texas, about whether the president can end the program.
And this spring, the Biden administration will make a big change in how it processes asylum cases. It will allow asylum officers at the border to grant asylum there, rather than pass the case onto judges in a bogged-down court system. It also would send people who don’t get asylum at the border to immigration courts, which usually take months to wrap up a case. (Right now, it takes years.) Immigration analysts say this could help tamp down on the notion that coming to the border and asking for asylum is an easy way to get into the country.
But soon Biden will be without his main tool to suppress border crossings, just months before an election where his party could lose control of one or both chambers of Congress, and where Republicans are making immigration a bigger and bigger issue.
“Both the Trump and Biden administration became really addicted to Title 42,” said immigration analyst Cris Ramón, “because all of a sudden you had this rapid instrument to remove migrants from the border.”
This story has been updated.