FAQ: What is going on at the southern border?

Caitlin Dickson
·Reporter
·12-min read

The recent spike in unaccompanied migrant children at the border has drawn scrutiny from across the political spectrum, with many on both sides — except members of the Biden administration — describing the current situation as a “crisis.” But the debate over semantics seems to be creating even more confusion around an already super-complicated issue.

Here’s what’s going on.

Dustin, an asylum-seeking migrant from Honduras, holds his six-year-old son Jerrardo near a baseball field in La Joya, Texas, where he and others took refuge after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States from Mexico on rafts, March 19, 2021. Emergency blankets were provided to the group of about 150 migrants from Central America by the U.S. Border Patrol agents.  (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
Dustin, a migrant from Honduras, holds his 6-year-old son, Jerrardo, near a baseball field in La Joya, Texas, where he and others took refuge after crossing the Rio Grande. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

What is going on at the border right now?

U.S. border officials are currently dealing with a massive influx of migrants arriving at the southern border.

“We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement issued last week, noting that “Border Patrol Agents are working around the clock to process the flow at the border.”

Specifically, they’re working around the clock to process the flow of unaccompanied minors, children without lawful immigration status who attempt to enter the country alone or with someone other than a parent or legal guardian.

According to data released earlier this month by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), of the 100,441 people apprehended at the southern border in February — a 28 percent increase from the previous month — 9,457 were unaccompanied minors. While only a fraction of the total border arrivals, these children make up the vast majority of migrants who are allowed into the country right now, and the Biden administration is struggling to find sufficient space to house them.

Where would the U.S. normally house these kids?

Federal law requires that, within 72 hours of being apprehended at the border, all undocumented minors must be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services and placed in an appropriate childcare facility until they can be safely released to a parent or sponsor. Over the last few years, reports have provided stark evidence of the risks that kids face in such settings: abuse, threats and even the deaths of several children held in Border Patrol custody beyond that 72-hour cutoff.

But due to a combination of COVID-19 protocols that significantly reduced HHS’s capacity to house children within its network of state-licensed childcare facilities, and the Biden team’s apparent failure to prepare for the current surge, the administration has found itself scrambling to find sufficient housing for the growing number of migrant children in its custody. As a result, border facilities designed to temporarily detain adults have become filled with a backlog of children, many of whom are being held well beyond the 72-hour limit before being placed at a more suitable childcare facility.

Over the weekend, news outlets including CNN and the Washington Post reported that the number of unaccompanied migrant children in CBP custody had surpassed 5,000, almost double the previous record. More than 600 of those kids had reportedly been in CBP custody for longer than 10 days.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, as of Tuesday there were approximately 11,350 children in the care of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, in addition to those waiting in CBP custody.

A photograph released by the office of Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, shows migrants crowded in a room with walls of plastic sheeting at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporary processing center in Donna, Texas on March 22, 2021 (Handout via Reuters).
A photograph released by the office of Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, shows migrants in a room with walls of plastic sheeting at Customs and Border Protection’s temporary processing center in Donna, Texas, on Monday. (Handout via Reuters)

How did we get here? Whose fault is it?

Biden administration officials, including Mayorkas, have repeatedly pointed out that both the Trump and Obama administrations experienced significant surges in migration, and that apprehensions at the southern border have been steadily increasing since April 2020.

While these things are both true, the ordeal unfolding at the border is also somewhat unique and can be arguably linked to specific decisions or actions taken by the current president as well as his predecessor.

Over the last four years, as then-President Donald Trump espoused anti-immigrant rhetoric and publicly fought to expand the physical barrier along the southern border, his administration worked diligently to implement a vast web of executive orders, policy memos and regulatory changes that effectively dismantled many aspects of the legal immigration system — including asylum.

By the time the coronavirus pandemic began last year, the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, had already forced thousands of asylum seekers, including families with young children, to wait in dangerous conditions across the border in Mexico while their cases made their way through the immigration court system in the U.S., a process that could take years.

But in March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an emergency order under Title 42 of the Public Health Service Act that effectively allowed the Trump administration to further seal the border. Despite the reported objections of the CDC’s top scientists, the Title 42 order was used to immediately expel all migrants, including asylum seekers, who arrived at the southern border. Even unaccompanied minors, who’d been technically exempt from the Remain in Mexico policy because of special legal protections under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, were also suddenly being turned away. At least 8,800 unaccompanied minors had been immediately expelled under the public health order by the time a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to halt the practice in November.

The following month, the Trump administration sought to reverse the judge’s order by arguing in court that the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s network of licensed shelters, which had been operating at significantly reduced capacity to enforce social distancing and quarantine measures, would become quickly overwhelmed if forced to grant entry to the already growing number of unaccompanied minors being apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. At the time, federal contractors who operate those shelters disputed the Trump administration’s argument, telling CBS News that the government had a number of options at its disposal to safely house an increased number of migrant children arriving at the border without compromising public health measures.

Sandra Rebolorio, a migrant asylum seeker from Guatemala, who was airlifted from Brownsville to El Paso, Texas, and deported from the U.S., carries her daughter near the Paso del Norte international border bridge in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on March 16, 2021. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)
Sandra Rebolorio, an asylum seeker from Guatemala who was airlifted from Brownsville to El Paso, Texas, and deported from the U.S., carries her daughter in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

Though Biden was not yet in office, members of his transition team were already being briefed on the situation. According to the Washington Post, “During the transition period, career officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection tried to issue sober alarms to the Biden team about the likelihood of a crisis at the border that could quickly overwhelm the nation’s capacity,” predicting that an immediate reversal of Trump’s policies would likely trigger a sharp increase in unaccompanied minors arriving at the border.

Despite these warnings, Biden pushed ahead with his agenda to reverse the policies of the Trump era and usher in a more humane approach to immigration as soon as he entered the White House. On Inauguration Day, he kicked off this effort by sending Congress a sweeping immigration reform proposal that would, among other things, create a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. He also signed the first of several executive orders to roll back Trump policies, ending the ban on travel from several majority-Muslim and African countries and halting border wall construction. Since then, Biden has continued to take steps to undo some of his predecessor’s most controversial immigration restrictions, including terminating the Remain in Mexico policy, announcing plans to increase refugee admissions and creating a task force to reunite parents and children who remain separated as a result of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.

Most consequential, however, seems to be Biden’s decision to not expel unaccompanied migrant children under the Title 42 public health order, even as the administration has continued to use the Trump-era policy to turn away most other migrants, including families, seeking protections at the border.

As predicted, arrivals of unaccompanied minors began to skyrocket after Biden took office.

So does that mean the border is open?

No. In fact, besides unaccompanied minors and a very limited number of families with certain circumstances, the majority of migrants arriving at the southern border right now are being turned away.

Though some Republican critics have blamed the recent surge on Biden’s termination of the Remain in Mexico policy, asylum seekers who were previously enrolled in that program are unlikely to be among those being newly apprehended at the border, as the administration is separately admitting them into the country in waves, at designated ports of entry.

Migrants are seen in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico before crossing the Rio Bravo river to turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents to request for asylum in El Paso, Texas on March 22, 2021. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)
Migrants in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on Monday before they turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents to ask for asylum. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

Why are so many people still coming, then?

More than a year before Biden took office, in January 2020, the Council on Foreign Relations predicted that without U.S. interference, worsening corruption, unrelenting violence and growing economic insecurity fueled by climate change in the “Northern Triangle” countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador would result in “yet another Central American migrant crisis on [the] southern border.”

Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic and devastation caused by back-to-back hurricanes have only further deteriorated conditions in those countries.

While these factors were already causing people to flee their homes before Biden took office, it is also impossible to completely separate the current migrant surge from the new administration’s pledge to replace the harsh policies of the Trump era with a more humane approach to immigration. Though Mayorkas and others have repeatedly stated that “the border is closed” and that asylum seekers should give the new administration time to implement changes to the system before coming to the border, their message seems to be getting drowned out by the one being circulated by smugglers and even relatives of migrants in the U.S. — that now is exactly the time to come.

During a recent White House press briefing, Roberta Jacobson, the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Biden’s coordinator for the southern border, acknowledged how Biden’s immigration policies may be encouraging migrants to travel to the southern border, even as officials like herself insist they should stay home.

“Surges tend to respond to hope, and there was a significant hope for a more humane policy after four years of, you know, pent-up demand,” Jacobson said, acknowledging that “I certainly think that the idea that a more humane policy would be in place may have driven people to make that decision.

“But perhaps, more importantly,” she continued, “it definitely drove smugglers ... to spread disinformation about what was now possible, and we know that.”

This photo released on March 22, 2021 by the office of Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas shows migrants crowded in a room with walls of plastic sheeting at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporary processing center in Donna, Texas. (Handout via Reuters)
Migrants at a temporary processing center in Donna, Texas. (Handout via Reuters)

How is the Biden administration responding to the immediate backup of unaccompanied children at the border?

Late last month, the Biden administration began transporting unaccompanied migrant teens to an emergency influx facility in Texas with space for up to 700. Since then, it has announced a plan to open at least three more emergency facilities, including a Dallas convention center that is reportedly being converted to house up to 3,000 teenage boys.

HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement has also taken a number of steps to increase capacity within its existing licensed shelter network while also reducing the amount of time that kids spend in government custody overall, including changing its COVID-19 protocols for shelters by ramping up testing and shortening quarantine periods for children in its care. Over the weekend, HHS announced that in the coming weeks it plans to begin transporting minors to a West Texas facility that “will initially accommodate approximately 500 children in hard-sided structures with the potential to expand to 2000.”

Mayorkas has also enlisted the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist with increasing bed capacity, and has solicited volunteers from elsewhere within the Department of Homeland Security to assist border officials with the onslaught of arrivals at the southern border.

Last week, as the Biden administration finalized plans to provide Mexico with excess U.S. doses of coronavirus vaccine, the Mexican government agreed to step up efforts to help contain the flow of illegal immigration to the U.S., including restricting travel along its southern border with Guatemala and accepting more Central American families turned away by the U.S. under Title 42.

How is the Biden administration planning to address this issue in the long term?

While the Biden administration may have failed to stave off the current border surge, it has outlined a number of steps it plans to take in order to prevent a similar crisis — or whatever you want to call it — in the future.

Those steps include investing $4 billion in efforts to address the root causes of migration in Central America, including increased aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, while also developing new legal pathways for people in those countries to seek protections in the United States without making the dangerous journey to the border.

One of those pathways is through the Central American Minors program, which seeks to safely reunite children from Northern Triangle countries with parents who are living legally in the United States. The program, which was established under Barack Obama in 2014 and terminated by Trump in 2017, allowed certain qualifying children to apply for refugee resettlement from their home country.

Earlier this month, the departments of State and Homeland Security announced they’d begun the first phases of restarting and expanding this program.

Administration officials have also said they are working with Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, as well as international organizations, to establish refugee processing centers in those countries so that people who qualify for humanitarian protections in the United States can be screened and processed for resettlement from within their home country. And Biden has pledged to fully revamp the asylum system within the United States, including implementing systemic reforms to enhance access to legal counsel and shortening the time it takes for asylum claims to be adjudicated.

Over the weekend, Mayorkas appeared on several Sunday news shows to defend the administration’s handling of the situation at the border, insisting it is “addressing the humanitarian needs of those children” currently in custody while working to execute Biden’s long-term plans at the same time.

“Quite frankly,” he said on MSNBC, “when we are finished doing so, the American public will look back on this and say, ‘We secured our border, and we upheld our values and our principles as a nation.’”

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