MEXICO CITY — Omliver doesn't know who Joe Biden is. Nor does he know anything about the president's immigration policies. But as the 17-year-old Guatemalan migrant heads north through Mexico, he clings to an idea he heard from friends: It's now easier to cross the U.S. border.
A rising number of migrants are streaming to the U.S. southern border — more than 100,000 were detained in February alone. U.S. officials expected the influx to hit a 20-year high this year, posing a major challenge to Biden and his promise to adopt more humane immigration policies.
Why are migrants trying at this moment? The economies of countries such as Honduras and Guatemala have been battered by the coronavirus pandemic. Two hurricanes pummeled Central America in November. Latin America already suffered from poverty and violence.
Now there’s another factor, according to migrant assistance groups: the change in the White House.
“Migration is like the stock market — it reacts to any sign, positive or negative,” said the Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, a migrant advocate based in the southern city of Oaxaca. “Since Biden was a candidate, he gave hope to migrants, although he never said the United States was going to open its doors to all migrants.”
Republicans accuse Biden of causing a migration crisis by halting construction of President Donald Trump’s border wall and scrapping a policy that required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico or apply from other countries.
Biden denies the claims. Migration also ebbed and flowed under Trump, in part due to perceptions of how difficult it was to cross the border in a given moment.
To Americans, the most obvious sign of the crescendoing migrant influx is children. The Biden administration is continuing a Trump-era policy of expelling most unauthorized adult migrants. But officials have decided to accept unaccompanied children. More than 9,000 were in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday, according to Reuters — the most in two years.
The surge is even more evident in parts of Mexico.
Around 3,000 migrants arrived at the 72 shelter in the southern city of Tenosique in all of 2020. This year, that number has already doubled. “With the change of government and Biden’s arrival, many people have begun to leave their countries,” said the Rev. Gabriel Romero, the shelter’s director.
Around 1,000 people have poured into an impromptu tent camp near the U.S. border in Tijuana, said the Rev. Pat Murphy, director of the Casa del Migrante there. They came after the Biden administration jettisoned Trump’s Migration Protection Protocols, or MPP, which required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court dates. But while MPP applicants are now being allowed into the United States, most in the tent city don’t qualify.
“Nobody knows what to do with them,” Murphy said. “It rained here for five days, but they kept multiplying.”
In many cases, advocates for migrants say, the Biden policies are just one more factor in a complex decision by people to leave their countries.
“The situation in El Salvador is not good right now,” said Mayra Machado, immigration coordinator at Adelante CIMITRA, a civic organization in San Salvador. “It’s expensive. There’s no employment.”
The pandemic has exacerbated long-standing problems of poverty. “A lot of teens and children are leaving right now because during the pandemic all schools are closed,” she said, and many have no access to the Internet.
Meanwhile, countries are removing coronavirus restrictions that had stymied travel, releasing pent-up demand.
“Once they relaxed the measures, people returned to migrating, and there were people who were even more desperate to leave,” said Victor Castro, coordinator of the migration team at the San Salvador office of Caritas.
Human smugglers are telling migrants Biden’s directives will mean an easy trip across the border, shelter directors say.
Castro emphasized that the main drivers of migration from El Salvador are problems such as domestic violence and gang intimidation. He said the Biden policies could be the final push for those who had been considering migrating.
“People leave because they need to leave to survive,” he said. “They’ve been thinking about it for a while.”
Omliver, the 17-year-old Guatemalan, said he’d decided to go to the United States because he wanted to help his grandfather and aunt, with whom he’d been living in the western municipality of Huehuetenango. The shelter where he was staying in Oaxaca allowed him to speak on the condition his last name was not used.
Like many migrants, Omliver has family in the United States: an uncle in Florida who has agreed to take him in. His friends told him it’s easier to enter the United States now. But he said the timing also reflects the fact his relatives have finally accumulated enough money for him to make the trip.
“I’m not worried” about being detained, he said. “I know I’m going to reach my uncle, and I’m going to be able to work.”
Victor Cartagena, a 25-year-old call-center worker in San Salvador, said he’s weighing whether to set out for the United States. He has a 10-year-old daughter there, and it’s difficult to find work in El Salvador that pays well. But he’s been deported by U.S. authorities once, in 2019, and is wary of being detained.
Some friends and family have urged him to make the trip, saying it has become less difficult to cross the border.
“I don’t really keep on top of” U.S. politics, Cartagena said. “But every time something good happens, it gets to your ears.”
In fact, the Biden administration has not eased entry for most irregular migrants. It’s continuing to expel thousands under Title 42, a measure used by the Trump administration to inhibit the spread of the coronavirus.
U.S. authorities say they’ve allowed more migrant families to stay because Mexico is unable to hold them. A new Mexican law bars the government from housing children and families in adult detention centers.
Biden and his top officials have appealed to migrants not to rush to the border. “Don’t come over,” Biden said in an interview with ABC News this week. “Don’t leave your town or city or community.”
But many migrants are unlikely to hear the message. And when they do, it’s likely to fall on deaf ears.
“People now have inflated expectations — even though we don’t believe that they are grounded in fact — because of the change of government and in the face of an increasingly worse situation in their home country,” said Juan José Hurtado Paz y Paz, the director of Asociación Pop No’j, a community organization in Huehuetenango.
In the Mexican border town of Reynosa, a group of would-be migrants gathered one recent day near the bridge into Texas. Several said relatives or smugglers or Facebook commenters had suggested they would be able to cross the border without problems now that Biden was in office. But they had been returned to Mexico, left to search for a place to sleep outside with their children in a city haunted by drug cartels.
Near them sat a distraught Guatemalan father and his 7-year-old son. They had just been expelled by the U.S. Border Patrol.
“The American president said we could come in,” the man said, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to security concerns. “But they sent us back here.”
Brigida reported from San Salvador. Sieff reported from Reynosa, Mexico.