How Biden’s Silence is Driving People to Jump the Border

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TIJUANA—In the weeks after Joe Biden’s inauguration, migrants across the city of Tijuana began to leave the various shelters and apartments where they’d been living in favor of an open-air encampment just north of the city’s center. It’s not a cheerful place; people have little to eat and there’s no running water. But it has a crucial location: It’s right next to the El Chaparral Port of Entry, the nearest legal crossing into the United States. Anticipating that the doors to the U.S. might soon open, they set up at the very foot of the country’s entrance.

In February, Rosemeri, an asylum seeker from El Salvador, says she pitched a tarp next to just two others. By early March, it had grown into a shantytown of more than 1,000 people, and today as many as 2,000 migrants — most of them families with children — brave the elements each day and night. Together, the makeshift community decided on a name for the tent city: La Esperanza, The Hope.

Rosemeri, like most people in the camp, is not a new arrival to Tijuana. She left her home in El Salvador in 2019, fleeing threats against her life from the gang that controls her neighborhood. Her plan was to request asylum in the U.S. But by the time she arrived at the southern border last April, a month into the Covid pandemic, it had been closed indefinitely to asylum seekers by a Trump administration public health order. Since then, she and tens of thousands of others have had no choice but to wait in northern Mexico, shuffling from shelter to shelter for months, hoping for a change in policy.

“We are Salvadorans, Hondurans, Haitians, Cubans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans,” she told me of the residents of La Esperanza. “We are here, all of us, waiting.”

The early months of Biden’s administration have been shadowed by a major increase in immigration, with border agents encountering more than 100,000 people attempting to cross unauthorized in February and more than 170,000 in March, a 15-year high. Critics on the right blame the president’s welcoming rhetoric, saying that after Donald Trump’s hard-line tack toward the border, it’s no wonder migrants are rushing in under supposedly softer leadership. But migrants themselves have a very different view: The issue isn’t Biden extending a hand; it’s that he hasn’t figured out what he wants to do — and has kept the legal pathway closed in the meantime.

Despite promising a new approach, Biden has left the effective asylum ban in place, with few exceptions. Realizing they have no prospect for legal entry into the U.S. anytime soon, many migrants like the ones here, stuck in Tijuana without a safe home to return to, are making the painful decision to try to cross the border outside the proper channels.

“We want to do this the right way,” insists Rosemeri.

The problem for people like her is that there is currently no “right way.” The Biden administration says this is all a work in progress. “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and it’s going to take time to rebuild robust asylum processing infrastructure at our borders,” an administration spokesperson told me in an interview last month. The White House did not respond to specific questions for this story.

Republicans in Washington have been saying Biden is too lenient, but people on the ground in Mexico suggest the root of the recent rise in unauthorized border crossings is actually the president’s prolonged maintenance of the most restrictive of his predecessor’s policies: the near-complete cutting off of asylum, a form of legal immigration.

“We want the authorities to simply tell us how we will be processed,” Rosemeri says. It’s a common refrain among migrants I spoke with. But they have no idea when such guidance will come. The only options available at the moment are to keep sticking it out in squalid and often unsafe conditions until they’re eventually let into the U.S. — not knowing when that day will come — or to try to make their own way across the border.

Many of the people living in La Esperanza, including Rosemeri, stressed their commitment to following the law, explaining that one of the reasons they’re waiting at the official border crossing point is to demonstrate their desire to enter in a respectful, legitimate manner. But that commitment is being tested as weeks become months.

“This is a closed borders crisis, not an open borders crisis,” says Alex Nowrasteh, director of immigration studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. “When people don’t have the option to enter lawfully, they’re going to eventually try to come unlawfully. And the fact that the president has laid out no real timeline for getting American immigration laws back to normal is just going to increase the uncertainty and illegality of actions along the border.”

For many migrants stuck waiting in Mexico, the status quo is bleak. One Honduran woman traveling with two teenagers told me, “I can’t feed my children, and it’s so dangerous in this city.” Tijuana has one of the highest murder rates of any city in the hemisphere, and vulnerable, poor migrants are often the targets of predatory kidnapping, theft and rape. “I just need [the U.S.] to tell me when we can cross,” she pleaded.

The mother then described what so many others also told me: At night, mysterious men in nice cars drive up to the camp. For a steep fee, these coyotes (whom Tijuana residents call polleros) offer to take families out to the east of Tijuana, to try to cross the border in the desert. Since the U.S. is no longer expelling unaccompanied minors, the polleros also offer to help families send their children across alone to surrender to the Border Patrol and request asylum.

The Honduran mother said she’s resisted the smugglers’ offers, but as time has gone on, and the Biden administration has offered no indication of when asylum will be restored, some families in La Esperanza have lost hope and given up waiting. One night in late March, Rosemeri said a group of almost two dozen left the camp suddenly to go east, to try to cross into the U.S. from the outskirts of Tecate. She doesn’t know whether they made it, but she’s certain that, as desperation mounts, they won’t be the last to try.

Though the 2020 clampdown on asylum, known as Title 42, was framed as a pandemic-control measure, and administered under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many advocates see it as the culmination of a deliberate, yearslong effort to reduce, or even stop, people from being able to seek refuge in the U.S. With Trump and his anti-immigration guru Stephen Miller now out of the White House, advocates generally expect the U.S. to reestablish its longtime role as a home for political and other refugees. But with no concrete plans yet from Biden to restore asylum, people who have been waiting at the border for months are left in a sort of limbo, with no end in sight.

Legal aid workers in Mexico and the U.S. that assist asylum seekers say they never advise migrants to cross the border unauthorized, but they also can recognize that many are growing weary of hearing the same advice they’ve been given for more than a year now: to keep waiting.

Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, says that last year she could at least tell asylum seekers to wait to see the results of the presidential election. Biden had spoken on the campaign trail about his desire to restore asylum, and his victory, she hoped, might augur change. But the transfer of power didn’t lead to a transformation of policy, and there’s still no clear date for when Title 42 might end. Now, she says, there’s not even a potential “light at the end of the tunnel” that she can offer for desperate migrants to look forward to.

Publicly, the White House has emphasized that its message to migrants remains, “Don’t come,” but for the tens of thousands already waiting at the border, including those in La Esperanza, Rosemeri says, “We don’t know what they want us to do.”

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