Increased migrant border crossings near El Paso are drawing attention back to the border, as Congress grapples with must-pass end of year legislation that could include an immigration deal.
The focus on border chaos has fueled calls for draconian measures, including extending the much-criticized Title 42 border control policy, which was ruled illegal by a federal judge last month and is due to end on Dec. 21.
The crisis in El Paso, where shelters are saturated and some migrants are being forced to sleep in the streets, showcases how an overwhelmed federal asylum program has been unable to keep up with growing hemispheric migration flows.
“The impact of the pandemic just imploded economies everywhere, especially in the really badly governed countries like Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua,” said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“On top of that is the same phenomenon that happened even during the Trump years, where people who come in and ask for asylum get to stay here for several years, because our asylum system is so busted up. And then they get on WhatsApp and tell everybody back in their community how they got in,” added Isacson.
The combination of a growing external supply of migrants and an overwhelmed system remains unaddressed in U.S. lawmaking, but the endless political debate over immigration have created their own bogeymen and proposals on how to counter them.
For instance, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Wednesday asked his attorney general, Ken Paxton, to investigate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for allegedly aiding migrants to cross the border, and a coalition of two Republicans and two conservative Democrats pleaded with the Biden administration to find a way to continue summary expulsions of migrants after Title 42.
Under Title 42, border officials are allowed to expel nationals of certain countries without screening for asylum requests, a measure that’s arguably a violation of U.S. asylum law, but one that greatly reduces the workload for U.S. border officials while avoiding the release of foreign nationals to the interior of the country.
Proponents of stricter border measures have centered their appeals both on the desires of Customs and Border Patrol staff and on a perceived need to minimize the entry of foreign nationals into the United States through the asylum process.
“It’s OK to listen to immigration activists, it’s OK to do that, that’s one perspective,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), one of the co-signers of the Title 42 extension plea, told CNN.
“But who’s listening to the men and women in green and blue, and more importantly, who’s listening to our border communities?” he asked.
Cities along the border, like El Paso, have long complained that they are unfairly burdened with providing social services to new immigrants, many of whom are in the early days of adjusting to life in the United States.
But the plea for the interior to share the burden of onboarding newcomers to the country has become inextricably linked with the push to further gut the asylum process and attempt to seal the border.
Even as Republicans show no signs of easing off on criticism of the Biden administration’s border policies, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is pushing its own plan to shrink the asylum system.
The Biden administration, which is appealing the Title 42 ruling in court, has been leaking details of future plans to limit the number of people who qualify for asylum, essentially delivering another punch to a dilapidated system.
According to several reports, DHS plans to enact a “transit ban,” taking yet another page from the Trump administration’s menagerie of draconian immigration measures.
That transit ban would require the collaboration of third countries, most likely Mexico, to take in people who left their countries to seek asylum in the United States but were denied.
But most regional migration experts agree that such a plan, even if it succeeded in returning a large number of people to Mexico, would do little to quell migration flows in the Western Hemisphere.
“Lots of Latin America is sort of a lost decade at this point. People are a lot hungrier, and you layer on droughts and floods, storms and all the other things that are going on, there’s more reason to leave,” said Isacson.
And security conditions in Mexico have worsened, at times provoking mass runs on the border, like the push on El Paso over the weekend.
A substantial number of the migrants requesting asylum in El Paso are Nicaraguan nationals — ineligible for Title 42 processing — who entered Mexico in late November and were given 30 days to cross the country.
About 1,500 of those migrants, traveling on 50 buses, were kidnapped Dec. 2 by an armed group near the city of Gómez Palacio, some 450 miles south of El Paso.
According to local daily El Heraldo de Chihuahua, the Mexican National Guard — a militarized federal police force — accidentally stumbled onto the safe houses where the migrants were kept, and the kidnappers fled.
“They were freed by the authorities, and then basically the authorities just put them on buses towards the border so that they could be whisked out of the country,” said Isacson.