The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At the border, a widely predicted crisis that caught Biden off guard

Migrants cross the Rio Grande Valley on March 28 in Roma, Tex. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

While there is high support for President Biden’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the new president has enjoyed higher approval ratings than his predecessor, there are widespread worries about his management of the U.S. southern border, which has been his worst polling issue.

As experts had warned for months, a massive influx of migrants has arrived at the border in recent weeks, including a record number of teenagers and children traveling without their parents who need to be sheltered for weeks. Last month, 172,331 migrants were taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the highest total in nearly 20 years.

Biden’s GOP opponents have blamed him for the influx and criticized his response, and Republican strategists say immigration will be a galvanizing issue for the 2022 midterm elections. Some of the party divisions that emerged after President Donald Trump’s reelection defeat and the storming of the U.S. Capitol appear to have been patched over, in part by shared conservative outrage at Biden’s border policies.

Trump put up walls to immigrants, with stinging rhetoric and barriers made of steel and regulation

Administration officials say they are trying to build more humane and orderly border policies, and they did not realize the extent to which the Trump administration had “dismantled” the U.S. asylum system. They now find themselves in the position of trying to overhaul U.S. immigration policy in the middle of a major border influx and a global pandemic. Many liberal Democrats and activists are quick to denounce new deterrent measures as a betrayal, limiting Biden’s ability to quickly change course.


In the weeks before Biden took office, he and his administration were aware of the risks they could face at the Mexico border. Trump and his top officials were predicting “disaster” if the Biden team followed through on campaign promises to roll back control measures.

Biden seemed eager to temper expectations when he laid out his immigration policy plans a month before inauguration. His administration wanted to ensure “guardrails” were in place, he said, to avoid having “2 million people on our border.”

“It’s not going to be able to be done on Day 1, lift every restriction that exists,” he said, “and find out that and go back to what it was 20 years ago and all of a sudden find out we have a crisis on our hands that complicates what we’re trying to do.”

Biden says he’ll reverse Trump immigration policies but wants ‘guardrails’ first

Biden’s incoming national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and top domestic policy official, Susan Rice, sounded a similar note in an interview with a Spanish-language news service, with Rice saying “migrants and asylum seekers absolutely should not believe those in the region peddling the idea that the border will suddenly be fully open.”

When Trump faced a record influx of Central American families arriving at the border in 2019, he implemented controversial measures limiting access to the U.S. asylum system, while pressuring Mexico to carry out an enforcement crackdown. Then the pandemic hit, and Trump used a CDC health order to give U.S. agents the authority to rapidly return the vast majority of border crossers to Mexico.

Pressures on the border continued building through 2020 anyway. A pair of hurricanes devastated Honduras and Guatemala, compounding the economic pain of the pandemic. The number of illegal crossings rose through the final months of the year, as did the number of teens and children arriving without parents.

As Biden prepared to take office, he had an ambitious legislative agenda that included a new push for comprehensive immigration restructuring. But it was clear he would have to balance his promises to reverse Trump policies against the risks his administration would face from removing some control measures too quickly.


The prudent tone Biden’s team sounded in December was harder to detect on Inauguration Day, as the guardrails started coming off. Biden issued more executive orders and actions on immigration than any other topic, including a 100-day deportation moratorium and a halt to border wall construction.

“The task of enforcing the immigration laws is complex and requires setting priorities to best serve the national interest,” one of Biden’s Jan. 20 orders declared, signaling a break with Trump. “My Administration will reset the policies and practices for enforcing civil immigration laws to align enforcement with these values and priorities.”

Biden to propose overhaul of immigration laws on first day in office

The Biden administration ended the “Remain in Mexico” program, which required asylum-seeking families to wait outside U.S. territory for their claims to be processed, and said it would not use Trump’s pandemic health order to return unaccompanied minors to their home countries, allowing them to remain in the United States with relatives or vetted sponsors while seeking protection.

Biden officials said they would continue to use the order, known as Title 42, to expel families and single adults. But a week into Biden’s term, Mexican authorities said they would no longer accept the return of some families, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest area for unlawful crossings.

Word soon spread that families with children younger than 7 years old were being allowed to enter the United States and released from custody. Families fitting that profile began rushing to that span of the border, where U.S. agents were already overwhelmed by soaring numbers of teens and children arriving alone.


Even as border stations and holding cells began to fill with new crossers, the Biden administration continued to repeal Trump-era enforcement measures. On Feb. 6, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced via tweet that the Biden administration had canceled Trump-era agreements with the governments of Central America to limit access to the U.S. asylum system, and the move was widely covered in the region as the removal of another barrier.

By mid-February, families that had been left waiting in crude camps along the Rio Grande by the “Remain in Mexico” policy were allowed to begin entering the United States, in emotional and dramatic scenes that further underscored Biden’s new approach.

Asylum seekers stuck in Mexico are frustrated, angry over Biden administration’s release of some migrants into U.S.

The number of minors arriving without their parents continued to balloon, and with the capacity of the Department of Health and Human Services’ shelter network reduced by the pandemic, teens and children began backing up inside CBP tents, sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder on floor mats. They were stranded beyond the 72-hour legal limit while waiting for beds to open up in HHS shelters.

More migrant families were arriving, too, and with Mexico only taking back a limited number, the Biden administration released more and more parents with children into border towns and cities. Biden officials continued to insist they were expelling the majority of the families crossing the border. It wasn’t true; statistics show fewer than half were being sent back.


With criticism from Republicans and some Democrats growing, Biden officials rejected the characterization of the influx as a “crisis,” insisting it was a challenge brought by seasonal migration trends that were consistent with historical patterns.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the administration’s message to asylum seekers was to stay home until the United States could restore full protections. “We are not saying, ‘Don’t come,’ ” he told reporters at the White House on March 1. “We are saying, ‘Don’t come now because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process to them as quickly as possible.’ ”

The message didn’t work, and border crossings skyrocketed through the first several weeks of March as a record number of unaccompanied minors were taken into custody. Migrants arriving as part of a family groups jumped to 53,623 in March, a sevenfold increase from January. So many single adults were crossing and attempting to evade capture that border agents said they were struggling to respond as they recorded nearly 1,000 “got-away” incidents each day.

The arrival of so many teens and children sent HHS officials scrambling to open emergency shelters, and Mayorkas mobilized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help. Soon, the temporary shelter network would include convention centers as well as military sites and worker camps in the Texas oil fields as the Biden administration rushed to open bed space across a dozen sites.

At a March 25 news conference, Biden falsely described the increase as a seasonal norm, not a result of his policies or approach. “The truth of the matter is: Nothing has changed,” Biden said. “It happens every single, solitary year.”

“I like to think it’s because I’m a nice guy, but it’s not,” he said.

‘No end in sight’: Inside the Biden administration’s failure to respond to an influx at the border

As Biden officials pledged to reduce border pressures by addressing the “root causes” of migration from Central America, they worked behind the scenes to get Mexico to stiffen enforcement. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agreed to deploy more police and soldiers near the country’s border with Guatemala, and the United States pledged to ship him millions of doses of surplus coronavirus vaccines.


Mexico’s crackdown appears to be having some effect so far in April, as the number of minors and family members arriving to U.S. custody has slightly dipped, even as the number of single adults has increased. U.S. officials had been bracing for migration levels to continue their steep ascent, but preliminary statistics suggest the trend has plateaued.

April nonetheless remains on course to be one of the busiest months along the border in the last two decades. Many Republican lawmakers insist they will not consider any immigration-related legislation until the numbers dramatically fall, further limiting the president’s already narrow path.

The Biden administration now has more than 21,000 teens and children in HHS shelters — a record — plus another 1,700 in Border Patrol stations and facilities. Although the administration is quickly growing its number of shelter beds, it lacks enough child-care providers to supervise them and case workers to screen their family members to determine their eligibility to take custody. The administration is seeking volunteers from across the government, including agencies like NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Trade Commission, who are willing to go to the border and help care for the minors for several months.

Unaccompanied migrant children spend weeks in government custody, even when their U.S.-based parents are eager to claim them

In mid-April, Biden opted to not admit more refugees, triggering a backlash among Democrats that forced the White House to reverse course. The president then, for the first time, called the migration surge a “crisis.”

“The problem was that the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up on the border with young people, and we couldn't do two things at once,” he said.

Two days later, White House officials told CNN that Biden’s statement did not reflect his administration’s official position.