Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that while Biden’s policies have contributed to the surge, the real problems causing it have been building for years. You can find a counterpoint here, where Dave Ray from the Federation for American Immigration Reform argues that Biden’s policies are primarily responsible for the current crisis.
U.S. authorities encountered migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border about 100,000 times last month, the highest February number in 15 years and an increase of nearly one-third from January. Though single adults represented a majority of those intercepted, Central American families and unaccompanied children seeking asylum are driving this recent increase. If current trends continue, encounters could reach peaks not seen in 20 years.
The rapid increase in crossings owes to a web of factors, including Biden administration changes and recent events in Central America. But more importantly, this increase is the result of both conditions in the region and U.S. border policies that were decades in the making.
In its first two months, the Biden administration has changed the U.S. approach to managing migration at the border, most notably by pausing wall construction; terminating the Migrant Protection Protocols, which kept asylum seekers bottled up in Mexico pending conclusion of their U.S. cases; and cancelling deals with Central American countries that permitted the U.S. to send asylum seekers there. While it has kept in place the Trump administration’s policy of immediately expelling adults who cross illegally, it has stopped expelling unaccompanied children and some families.
There is no denying that migrants will be more likely to make the journey north if they hear that U.S. policy is shifting toward more openness and when they know people who have been able to set foot on U.S. territory. And smugglers are quick to exaggerate changes to U.S. border policy to drum up business.
But U.S. immigration policies are not the only things that changed. The COVID-19 pandemic spiked unemployment and led to economic contractions across Central America. Last November, hurricanes displaced tens of thousands of Guatemalans and Hondurans and destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands.
The recent increase in border activity appears all the more glaring because of the sharp reduction in arrivals during 2020 brought on by the pandemic and Trump policies that nearly sealed the border. This pause was unsustainable, with people waiting in their home countries or stopped en route, often in Mexico.
It was inevitable that migration would rebound after this extraordinary period of frozen mobility worldwide. However, it is worth noting that migration has rebounded less than the number of encounters suggests. Encounters with repeat crossers rose throughout 2020 as expulsions replaced formal removals, which can carry sanctions for subsequent illegal re-entries. The share of migrants caught trying to cross the border multiple times in a year rose from 7 percent in 2019 to 38 percent in January.
Beyond recent events, deeper forces are driving illegal immigration from Central America — the same forces that were at the root of surges in 2014 during the Obama administration and in 2019 under President Trump.
These forces reflect longstanding crises in the region.
A crisis of poverty, with the per capita incomes of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras ranging from one-eighth to one-twelfth of the U.S. average. A crisis of violence, with Honduras having one of the highest homicide rates worldwide. A crisis of governance, with anti-corruption agencies disbanded and the Honduran president accused of taking bribes from drug traffickers. A climate crisis, causing repeated droughts and crop failures.
There are also pull factors, including the United States’ inability to adjust its enforcement and immigration systems to control new flows. Migrants who are not expelled under the Trump-era public health order find their asylum claims sent to immigration courts backlogged with 1.3 million cases, and Central Americans have few legal channels for economic migration. Because the asylum system is the only accessible route and claims take years to adjudicate, some migrants file weak claims as a means to stay and work in the United States.
In the short run, the Biden administration is balancing a tough approach with adult migrants alongside more humane treatment of children. Past administrations — Republican and Democratic — failed to build sufficient capacity to handle large flows, particularly of unaccompanied children. With experience, policy consistency and more resources, the government should be better able to manage the current flow.
The key question in the long run is how to manage migration from the region in a safe, orderly and legal manner. This will require real solutions to Central America’s crises: better governance, public safety improvements, mitigation of natural disasters and climate change, and economic development.
It will also require restructuring the U.S. asylum system — as the Migration Policy Institute has recommended — so that determinations take weeks or months instead of years. A more efficient asylum system would reduce incentives to file non-meritorious claims while offering safety to those fleeing violence and persecution. The government will also need to ensure migrants depart if denied asylum, without detaining vulnerable populations in harsh conditions. And finally, the United States should make legal pathways, such as the existing temporary agricultural worker visa, accessible to Central Americans. This would take pressure off the border.
The Biden administration has taken some first steps in tackling these significant long-term issues. Successfully addressing them will require sustained attention from the administration, Congress and the American public.
Jessica Bolter is an associate policy analyst with Migration Policy Institute’s U.S. Immigration Policy Program and Randy Capps is director for U.S. research at MPI.