How the Biden Administration is Battling the Border Surge

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The extraordinary surge in migration across the Americas has become the single most dominant issue in the relationship between the United States and Mexico. U.S. authorities stopped migrants 2.8 million times at its southern border in the 12 months ending in September — breaking the previous record set a year earlier.

The two countries, linked by geography, share a common interest: trying to dissuade people from trying to illegally cross an already overwhelmed border. As the numbers have hit new highs, President Biden has leaned more heavily into enforcement designed to drive down unauthorized crossings.

How is Biden able to pursue these increasingly aggressive measures? With help from the Mexican government. Mexico has agreed to take in a growing number of the migrants that the U.S. is swiftly expelling after they enter the country.

This month, Biden announced some of his toughest actions yet: a policy that would deny a specific group of migrants the chance to apply for asylum if they cross the border without authorization, and would instead send them to Mexico.

Progressives laid into the president over the sweeping restrictions, which one immigrant advocate called “a humanitarian disgrace.”

I’ve been covering these issues for almost three years as The Times’s Mexico bureau chief, and I’ve noticed that as desperation on both sides of the border has ratcheted up in recent months, so has cooperation between the two governments.

That dynamic was on display at a summit in Mexico City this week between Biden and his Mexican and Canadian counterparts. I was struck by Biden’s obvious investment in building a rapport with Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose help he needs more than ever.

Biden thanked Mexico for helping manage what he called “the greatest migration in human history” and defended his approach as a “middle” way between “extremes” in immigration policy ideas on the left and right.

In today’s newsletter, I’ll look at why so many people are migrating right now and what the U.S. and Mexico are trying to do about it.

So many people are migrating right now because of how bad life has gotten south of the border over the past few years. Latin America was hit with particular force by the pandemic and the economic downturn that followed.

The ranks of the poor in the region would grow by up to 45 million, the United Nations estimated. Hunger — driven by inflation, the war in Ukraine and the effects of climate change — is on the rise.

Unlike most of the rest of the world, when suffering hits Latin America, its hundreds of millions of residents can decide to walk to the United States.

Migrants have become so desperate that they are braving a 66-mile trek across a treacherous stretch of jungle at the Colombia-Panama border known as the Darién Gap. Once considered barely passable, it is now a thoroughfare for record numbers of migrants. Between 2010 and 2020, fewer than 11,000 people crossed on average each year. Last year, more than 248,000 people made the journey.

Biden came to office two years ago vowing to undo the Trump administration’s harsh migration policies in favor of more “humane” treatment of people fleeing their homes because they couldn’t eat, or were trying to escape violence.

Soon after his inauguration, Biden moved to stop immediately expelling unaccompanied children and tried to freeze deportations. (A judge halted the effort.)

But after a surge of migrants followed, the Biden administration eventually embraced stricter enforcement.

The administration had already benefited from what many consider to be a de facto border wall: a pandemic measure known as Title 42 that allows U.S. officials to quickly deport migrants who have crossed into the country illegally.

But Biden had been effectively prevented from applying that measure to Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Haitians and Cubans — four nationalities that have become a growing source of migration. The governments in those countries were making it difficult to send their citizens back home, so Mexico was generally refusing to accept them.

Earlier this month, Biden announced that he had found a way to swiftly expel those migrants; Mexico had agreed to receive up to 30,000 of them per month.

Mexico’s government is seeking the same thing as the U.S.: to reduce the number of migrants coming through its borders.

The influx is hard for Mexico, the government says, because it strains already thin public resources and puts money into the hands of organized criminal groups that are smuggling people through. It’s also bad for migrants, who are forced to take treacherous journeys through Mexico’s violent corridors.

Part of Biden’s new policy addresses that need. The administration will give up to 30,000 people from the four countries the chance to enter the U.S. legally, but only if they don’t pass through Mexico and can meet other requirements.

Since the new policy was announced, a senior Mexican official told me, the government has already noticed a drop in those migrants entering Mexico — and the United States.

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