The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden administration rushes to accommodate border surge, with few signs of plans to contain it

A classroom at an influx-care facility in Carrizo Springs, Tex., for migrant teenagers and children who arrive in the United States without their parents.
A classroom at an influx-care facility in Carrizo Springs, Tex., for migrant teenagers and children who arrive in the United States without their parents. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

As the Biden administration races to find shelter for a fast-growing migration surge along the Mexico border, it is handling the influx primarily as a capacity challenge. The measures are aimed at accommodating the increase, not to contain it or change the upward trend.

The administration has quickly turned detention centers into rapid-processing hubs for families with young children, relaxed shelter capacity rules aimed at lessening the spread of the coronavirus, deployed hundreds of backup border agents to the busiest crossings and tried to mobilize the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help with coronavirus testing and quarantining those who test positive. With bed space filling quickly, officials have drafted plans to put families in hotels in Texas and Arizona.

On several days last week, U.S. agents took more than 4,000 migrants into custody, nearly double the number in January. Roughly 350 teens and children have been crossing the U.S. border without their parents each day in recent weeks, four times as many as last fall, and many are stuck for days in dour detention cells waiting for shelter openings. While most adult migrants are turned away, unaccompanied minors are allowed to stay, as are some families with young children.

President Biden will soon send top advisers to the border to assess the inflow and report back their findings, the White House said Friday. Although Department of Homeland Security officials have warned internally that the largest migration wave in more than two decades could arrive in the coming months, Biden officials have not said publicly what new legal or enforcement tactics they are considering, if any, to slow it.

Biden squeezed on immigration policy, bracing for border crisis

Theresa Cardinal Brown, an immigration analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, said the administration is treating the strain as a logistical and operational problem, “but whether they see it as a political problem is a different question.”

“Biden ran on being the anti-Trump,” she said. “He made clear that an emphasis on deterrence was not what he was going to do, and he got elected. So I think using enforcement as a primary means of managing what is happening at border is not what he wants to do.”

Biden ran for president on promises to repudiate his predecessor’s policies and make the United States more welcoming to immigrants again. Six weeks after taking office, he appears on a path to a crisis, despite months of warnings from veteran Homeland Security officials about the risks of abrupt policy moves during the pandemic and when millions of Mexicans, Central Americans and others are facing deteriorating and desperate conditions back home.

Border arrests and detentions were already at their highest levels in years when Biden took office, and the pandemic has severely reduced the government’s detention and shelter capacity. Biden quickly ordered a halt to border wall construction, curtailed deportations and ended deterrent measures such as President Donald Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy that left thousands of asylum seekers stranded in dangerous border cities.

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

Republican leaders have accused Biden of triggering a crisis at the border, and they often highlight how the new president’s tone and tactics are less stern than those of the Obama administration. They have also seized on the border surge as a wedge issue for the 2022 midterm elections.

Biden and his top officials have publicly urged migrants not to make the journey north, but the message appears to be having little impact. Apprehensions at the border are approaching the levels that overwhelmed Border Patrol agents and facilities with a record influx of families and children during fiscal year 2019, when the authorities took nearly one million crossers into custody.

The difference between that crisis and the current influx is the Trump administration had teams of attorneys, border officials and senior White House aides, including Stephen Miller, planning enforcement strategies to shut the border to asylum seekers and, in some cases, escalate the suffering of the migrants with harsh measures.

Biden officials emphasize that they are taking a different approach, at times deflecting skeptical questions about their border management strategy by bringing up Trump’s widely denounced separation of migrant families in 2018 and the “Remain in Mexico” policy that left hundreds stranded in squalid tent camps while awaiting U.S. court hearings that never came.

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

Last March, the Trump administration used a public health order known as Title 42 to implement emergency border-control measures allowing agents to rapidly “expel” most migrants back to Mexico. After Biden took office, he ordered a halt to the practice for unaccompanied minors, and their numbers have shot up since then.

“Obviously, we’re going to have more kids crossing into the country since we’ve been letting more children stay and the last administration inhumanely kicked them out,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday, when asked whether Biden accepted responsibility for the growing surge.

“We’re going to tread our own path forward, and that includes treating minors with humanity and respect,” Psaki said.

Less clear is what the administration will do if unauthorized crossings continue on a record-breaking path. The latest U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures show Mexican adults and children crossing at levels not recorded in years — a change from 2019 when Central American families made up the largest group of asylum seekers. Mexico’s economy contracted 8.5 percent last year, and many Mexican migrants appear to be fleeing states scarred by some of the country’s worst drug cartel violence.

Analysts also note the Title 42 policy has produced soaring levels of repeat crossings, known as recidivism, because migrants who return to Mexico try again and again with no fear of prosecution or jail time. CBP enforcement figures may rise to 2019 levels in the coming months as a result of more arrests, but they do not necessarily reflect the arrival of more people.

Border agents are just as busy though, and they say the number of migrants observed on surveillance cameras who successfully evade capture, known as “got-aways,” has also soared. Officials said they counted 1,000 got-aways on a single day last month.

Minors arriving without their parents are the one group not being returned to Mexico under Biden, and their fast-growing numbers have created the most immediate challenge. One agent in Arizona described grim conditions at a Border Patrol station where dozens of teens have been waiting for as long as six days for space to open up in shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services, despite U.S. laws mandating their transfer within 72 hours. Agents brought in soccer balls and sports equipment for the teens to play with in the garage area of the station. “As a parent with kids, it’s tough to see,” said the agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said federal shelters could temporarily expand to the pre-pandemic full capacity so that they could house more minors, according to a memo obtained Friday by The Washington Post. The shelters have been operating at reduced capacity to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. But in the memo, the CDC noted children are less at risk of severe complications from the disease and said the shelters could limit transmission by continuing to test minors upon entry and quarantining those who are infected.

Ron Vitiello, a former Border Patrol chief and top ICE official under Trump, said he did not see anything on the horizon that would change the momentum of the influx. “This gets a lot worse before it gets better,” he said.

“You have thousands of people in custody at locations built for hundreds, but everyone has to be processed,” he said. “You can’t send kids to shelters if the kids haven’t been booked in. You can’t release families until they are booked in, so they can have their day in court.”

“It’s a physics problem — you only have so many agents and work stations, and those lines are going to get really long,” he added.

Adam Isacson, a border security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, said he thinks the Biden administration does not want to return to the kind of “metering” system that Trump used to limit the number of people allowed to seek asylum along the border.

“I think the end goal is to be able to hear as quickly as possible the asylum claims of all those who need protection,” Isacson said. “But they’re not going to swing the gates open.”

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last week blamed the capacity limitations faced by the administration on Trump policies he said left the U.S. immigration system “gutted” and “dismantled.” Biden has continued to rely on the Title 42 policy as its main enforcement tool for preventing the entry of single adults and most families.

The family of Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s pick to head DHS, fled the Nazis and then Cuba before arriving in the United States

Immigrant advocates have challenged the legality of the Title 42 process, and some are demanding that Biden revoke it, saying it endangers asylum seekers. Less clear is what the Biden administration would use as an enforcement tool in its place.

Andrew Selee, the president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said the kinds of long-term solutions Biden and his team have advocated, including job creation in Central America and an expedited system for deciding asylum claims, are not short-term measures that could replace Title 42.

“It is the only mechanism they have to manage numbers right now,” Selee said. “They are under extreme pressure to take it down, but if they do they need to be prepared for what happens after that.”

Biden was vice president and Mayorkas was deputy DHS secretary in 2014, when the government faced its first large influx of unaccompanied minors and parents with children. The Obama administration responded by establishing family detention centers where it attempted to keep parents with their children in custody long enough to make an initial decision on their asylum claims.

Those are the centers the Biden administration is converting into rapid-processing hubs designed to receive families and provide them with coronavirus tests and court dates, releasing them within 72 hours. Migrant advocates have criticized the plan, saying families with children should not be detained for any amount of time.

“One thing the U.S. government does not control is how many people arrive and where,” said Cardinal Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center, adding that administrations of both parties have failed do develop and solidify emergency response plans for migration surges. “Every time this happens, it’s like we’re making this up all over again.”

Cardinal Brown said Biden is also coping with what amounts to pent-up demand produced by years of deterrent measures.

“Trump’s answer was keep everyone out, but that didn’t mean there were fewer people wanting to migrate,” she said. “It just meant they were waiting for their time.”

Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.