Elevated migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border aren’t likely to come down for months, a new normal fueled by the ongoing internal collapse of Venezuela and the solidification of the migrant-smuggling trade.
With tens of thousands of people on the move from Panama to Mexico, the Biden administration is bracing both for the political fallout from the right and for the logistical challenges of keeping the border manned.
Last month, U.S. officials encountered 232,972 people at the border: 51,913 at ports of entry, and 181,059 who crossed the border between those ports of entry.
Those numbers, the highest since December, confirmed the end of a summer lull, when a change in border policy — dropping the Trump administration’s controversial Title 42 measure — forced migrant smugglers to regroup and reassess U.S. policy.
“Smugglers, like drug traffickers, they evolve pretty quickly,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute.
That evolution is taking place throughout Mexico and Central America, whether to maximize the number of migrants crossing the border on a daily basis, to bribe local officials or bypass checkpoints, or to more quickly navigate Panama’s Darién Gap.
To overcome those obstacles, different groups of migrants use smugglers in unique ways, according to Selee.
People traveling intercontinentally are more likely to use the services of a single organization from beginning to end, while groups from the Americas can end up hiring diverse organizations to traverse each bottleneck.
“Most Venezuelans are coming with a la carte smuggling. Most Guatemalans, they’re not doing a la carte, but they’re hiring the local smuggler in their town, who’s then handing them off to someone else, who’s handing them off to someone else, who’s handing them off to someone else, right? They’re networked,” Selee said.
Smuggling networks are large and hard to pin down in part because they have a vast client base.
Though migration from Central America and Mexico kicked up in August, Venezuela has been leading the Americas in emigration for years, even as conditions in several countries continue to push people out.
“Venezuela, their economy is now bottoming out again. Nicaragua has become more repressive, but nothing dramatically — except perhaps Ecuador, no other country has undergone a real dramatic shock in the last year or two. But they’ve not recovered from the pandemic,” said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight for the Washington Office on Latin America.
Because much of the migration is driven by structural deficiencies, there are few short-term ways to reduce the flow of people.
And the Biden administration is constrained in how much it can do to change the equation, barring congressional action.
House Republicans are vowing to direct immigration policy through the power of the purse, with elements of their H.R. 2 proposal making it into Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) stopgap government funding bill.
Though that bill is unlikely to clear Senate opposition even if it passes the House, it aims to break the Biden administration’s carrot-and-stick approach to immigration by reducing the federal government’s ability to parole foreign nationals into the country.
That ability has led to some policy successes for the Department of Homeland Security.
In August, the nearly 10,000 Haitian nationals encountered at the border presented themselves at ports of entry, with zero detected by the Border Patrol crossing at unauthorized places.
In large part, that’s due to the administration’s processes to admit people from Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba using parole — the carrot in the equation.
But many advocates find the stick unpalatable.
“They had to get there though by wielding a really horrible stick. They had to send 25,000 Haitians to that country. That’s almost like a new Somalia. God knows what happened to some of those people when they got sent back,” Isacson said.
“So that was a carrot and stick, and it’s great that they expanded the carrot. But sending people to Haiti under the control of gangs is — you have to find ways to sleep at night when you do that that massively.”
The Haitian experience has showcased a sophisticated network of migration advice on social media and messaging apps.
While that network exists virtually for all nationalities, Haitians have showed particular prowess in organizing as a group to minimize their risk when crossing the border.
The administration is looking for ways to change the tone of messages sent back home by migrants without falling into the same legal issues that hounded the Trump administration’s hard-line border policies.
The Trump team made repeated attempts to quash the intersection of asylum law and family protection regulations, a tack that’s impossible for the Biden administration.
“But I do think they’re aware that they need to be able to hold families while they’re determining — [families] who have crossed between ports of entry — to determine whether they’re eligible for asylum,” Selee said.
The administration faces a host of challenges, political and technical, to thread the needle between not violating the legal and human rights of minors while not releasing asylum seekers with weaker claims into the interior of the country.
The Biden administration is also pushing Mexico to enforce its own immigration laws more aggressively, “depressurizing” northern cities by repatriating foreign migrants.
“The Biden administration may come up with a new way to make it harsher and push the numbers down for a little while. Probably whatever they do will involve harshness toward families in the remain-in-Texas or the arrangement with Mexico to take more deportees,” said Isacson.
But he warned those measures might prove only temporarily successful.
“This is the normal number, and you can make people really miserable and push it down for a while, but it’s just going to keep popping up to this number. The question is, will it get much higher than a quarter-million people a month?”