In March, 172,331 people were apprehended after crossing the southern border of the United States without authorization, the most in 15 years. Among them were 18,890 unaccompanied children and teenagers, double the number who tried to cross in February and an all-time record for a single month.
Why the influx? It’s hard to say, seeing as migration levels at a given moment are the result of a combination of individual central and South American countries as much as policy enforcement of said migration laws in the U.S. The number of apprehended migrants fluctuates regardless of who’s in charge on this side of the border.
So while much of the bellyaching about a Democratic president presiding over a “crisis” on the border comes from nativist Republicans who badly want a wedge issue (and a photo op), there is currently a measurable uptick in arrivals, a significant number of whom are minors. Here’s what we know about the situation as it currently stands.
Are migrants being allowed into the U.S.?
The majority are not. The Biden administration is leaning on Title 42, part of federal law that the Trump administration used to largely suspend the right of migrants to seek asylum at the southern border. The stated justification used by both administrations is preventing the spread of COVID-19.
However, neither administration has provided a good explanation for why millions of legal border crossings (not to mention thousands of people flying into the United States daily) don’t pose a similar health risk.
One group the Biden administration hasn’t been sending back are those unaccompanied minors. Again, why housing children is less of a public health risk than housing adults hasn’t really been explained. What is clear is that migrant families are adjusting to the new policy.
“Families that have been expelled multiple times that are traveling with children, and some of them are making the decision to send their children in by themselves, because they have families someplace in the U.S., and they know their children will be released to them,” Ruben Garcia, who has worked in migrant services at the border for over 40 years, told PBS.
What is the government doing with the migrants it is allowing in?
The migrants who are being allowed into the country, largely unaccompanied minors, are not being treated well, full-stop. They’re being packed into detention facilities—one center in Donna, Texas is occupied at 1,600 percent (!) capacity—in a way that would be inhumane in normal conditions and is flat-out dangerous during a pandemic in which distancing is necessary for safety.
Of course, even if they manage not to contract COVID-19, the trauma these kids are enduring will follow them for the rest of their lives. And that the government is failing to protect them from the same disease it’s using to keep their parents out of the country adds insult to injury.
What should the government be doing?
“Title 42 doesn’t address anything. It doesn’t solve anything. It basically postpones the inevitable. None of these policies that push people and limit their legal avenues do anything in the long term,” Rep. Veronica Escobar, whose district includes part of the border near El Paso, told PBS.
Escobar’s solution, which she explained in an op-ed for the New York Times, is to address why so many people are desperate to enter the United States.
“Overwhelmingly and consistently, Central American refugees tell stories of fleeing violence, persecution, food insecurity and calamitous economic conditions in their countries,” she wrote. “Back-to-back hurricanes and storms that have made it impossible to rebuild are new motivations to go north.”
International cooperation is a big part of Escobar’s plan, but she also says that domestic immigration reform to create a pathway to citizenship, grant temporary protected status for humanitarian reasons, reform the Department of Homeland Security to focus on criminal activity, and demilitarize the border, among other things, are also necessary.
In the short term, it is incumbent on the Biden administration to release as many children as possible into the custody of family members already in the United States and to ensure that those children don’t have to live with the specter of deportation hanging over them.