US Customs and Border Protection is holding more than 1,000 children who crossed the US-Mexico border alone, the highest number since 27 April, during an unprecedented surge in young asylum-seekers.
The children, often held in jail-like conditions at facilities with poor health and safety records past a court-mandated limit of three days, will remain in CBP custody until they can be placed in a formal refugee shelter or reunited with a family sponsor already in the country.
The 1,040 children in CBP custody is well below the record 5,767 the agency recorded this March, as well the level during the Trump administration, where CBP regularly held more than 2,000 children. But it’s a reminder that for all of the heated rhetoric around the border, neither the Trump nor the Biden administration has done much to change the root causes of migration which send people to the US.
The factors driving the surge in minors crossing the border this year are complicated and playing out over different time scales. There were immediate drivers like two recent hurricanes in Central America, the economic devastation of the coronavirus, and the easing of some of the Trump administration’s most onerous border restrictions.
On 1 June, the Biden administration formally ended the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols, otherwise known as “Remain in Mexico,” a Trump-era policy that sent nearly 70,000 asylum-seekers, who are protected under US law, back to Mexico to wait for their court dates. (Mr Biden suspended MPP earlier in the year.)
It hasn’t, however, ended Title 42, another Trump immigration policy which largely shuttered the border to asylum-seekers on coronavirus grounds, a move criticised by both health and immigration experts as unnecessary. Thousands of children, who the Biden administration exempted from this policy, crossed alone rather than be sent back home.
Longer-term influences include climate change and the deep poverty and corruption in regions of Mexico and Central America that send most of the migrants to the Southern border, places where the US long backed dictators and armed paramilitary groups that left deep societal and economic wounds.
Vice-president Kamala Harris visited Mexico and Guatemala this month to highlight immigration issues, as well tout new plans for millions in aid to Central America, a new anti-corruption taskforce, and the planned future opening of asylum application centres in Central American countries themselves.
Still, despite these plans, she and the president have stuck with a fairly hard-line tone.
"I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border," she said.
Critics, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have argued that the US isn’t doing enough to protect seekers of asylum, an international human right, and that discouraging people from coming pales in comparison to the myriad factors driving them from their homes in the first place.
“This is disappointing to see,” the congresswoman wrote after Ms Harris’s “do not come” comments. “First, seeking asylum at any US border is a 100% legal method of arrival. Second, the US spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilisation in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”
Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s ambitious legal immigration expansion bill, unveiled at the beginning of this year, hasn’t picked up most momentum, as the coronavirus, infrastructure, elections, and racial justice policy has occupied most of Washington’s time so far.
If that plan fizzles out in the face of a Republican filibuster, as so many have before, the Biden administration is also working on more granular internal tweaks to cut through the immigration backlog that piled up during the Trump administration.