Biden border plan faces breakdown amid record influx of families
The Washington Post October 6, 2023
CHICAGO - The border plan President Biden put in place nearly five months ago is at risk of collapse amid a new wave of illegal crossings, intensifying strains on U.S. cities and leaving authorities struggling to care for record numbers of families arriving with children.
U.S. agents along the southern border are making more than 9,000 arrests a day, a near record, including a fast-rising number of families, a group that is far more difficult for the government to manage than adults traveling solo.
More than 103,000 parents traveling with children crossed the southern border illegally in September, the highest number ever, according to preliminary government data obtained by The Washington Post.
The influx has left some migrant families sleeping on the streets, turning them into a landscape of the nation’s policy failures.
Republican governors signed a Sept. 19 letter to Biden saying his policies are encouraging illegal immigration. New York Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, this week headed to Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia on what he called a fact-finding mission after saying thousands of migrants have overwhelmed the city’s shelters, and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, also a Democrat, wrote Biden this week that the situation was “untenable.”
In Chicago, the city that will host the Democratic National Convention next year, the mayor is planning to erect winterized tents because the shelters are bursting. Migrants are camped out at O’Hare International Airport and on the tile-floor lobbies of neighborhood police precincts, some spilling onto the sidewalks outside.
“This is insane,” said Annie Gomberg, the lead organizer for volunteers at one of the city’s police stations, for which a friend had recruited her in April to arrange donations of blankets, food and supplies for migrants, including a rising number of families with small children. “We can’t keep doing this.”
Biden officials had warned that border crossings could soar after they lifted in May the coronavirus restrictions known as Title 42. They expanded opportunities for migrants to arrive legally, and they threatened tougher penalties for crossing the border illegally. When unlawful entries initially fell, the administration touted the decline as evidence that the president’s plan was working.
But the post-Title 42 upheaval they feared is now underway, driven by record numbers of migrant families primarily from Latin America surrendering to U.S. agents, the first step in seeking asylum. The legal channels Biden officials created to discourage unlawful crossings are being challenged by critics in court.
The consequences Biden officials threatened to impose on those who break the law - including rapid deportations - have done little to deter families who say they are fleeing poverty or violence. For both legal and logistical reasons, families are generally not detained or deported.
Biden administration officials say they are grappling with a migration surge spanning the hemisphere and are getting little help from Congress, which for years has failed to pass broad new immigration laws and, since Biden took office, has ignored his exhortations to create more legal immigration pathways to relieve labor shortages and improve border security.
Department of Homeland Security officials said they have channeled more than $1 billion to U.S. cities and towns to provide shelter and services for migrants. Officials, citing unsafe conditions in Venezuela, also granted temporary legal status to nearly half a million Venezuelans, making them eligible for work permits and hopefully able to exit strained city shelters.
Biden officials said Thursday that they had reached a deal with the Venezuelan government to resume direct deportation flights for those who arrive illegally and do not qualify for U.S. protection.
But Venezuelans accounted for only 12 percent of the more than half a million parents and children the government encountered at the border from October through August.
Blas Nuñez-Neto, the top border and immigration policy official at the Department of Homeland Security, said in September after a work trip to Latin America that he was horrified to see children in diapers with little food and water traversing the rugged Darién Gap jungle linking Colombia and Panama.
He said governments have an imperative to stop the risky jungle crossings and lamented that “political extremes” in Congress have blocked changes to U.S. immigration laws. Because the system is so backlogged, migrants can cross the border illegally, claim a fear of persecution, and live and work legally in the United States for years with little fear of deportation.
Adult men dominated past migrant streams, but now record numbers of families are arriving from all over the world, in many cases without contacts in the United States who are willing to take them in. Biden administration officials say that is why they are expanding legal options for migrants, allowing them to avoid dangerous crossings by scheduling appointments to arrive using a mobile app. Or they can find U.S. residents willing to sponsor them.
Those arriving illegally are often rushed onto buses heading from the border to other cities, where they end up homeless in places such as Chicago.
At Chicago’s 15th District police station recently, a newborn dozed on a rainbow-print blanket laid on the floor near the reception desk. Nearby, families slept on donated yoga mats and comforters, wedged between stacks of suitcases.
Children are enrolling in school after long absences during their sojourns from their home countries. There was even a family dog, a tiny, golden-haired mutt who one family said they hauled from Venezuela to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Some families slept on the sidewalk because the station’s lobby was full. Among them was Marioxi Leon and her four children aged 2 to 15. The family snuggled together under a plastic sheet on a rainy day.
Leon said that they had fled Venezuela after she criticized the government and received threats, and that they had crossed the border in August. She was worried about her children sleeping on the streets.
“I’m afraid they’re going to get sick,” she said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has been sending migrants from the border to jurisdictions such as Illinois, which have policies that protect undocumented immigrants from being deported. Sanctuary states also allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses and pay in-state tuition at colleges.
Chicago Alderman Andre Vasquez, a Democrat who chairs the city council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said in an interview that the city has stood by its support for immigrants. But, he said, the Biden administration must expand aid to cities and provide work authorization to more immigrant groups.
Officials should not expect help from Republicans, he said, worrying that they will send even more buses north during the convention.
“This is squarely on the president. Congress is not going to do it,” said Vasquez, whose parents are immigrants from Guatemala.
“The Republican Party wants to make the Democratic Party look like a disaster, to make Chicago look like a disaster, and the president look like a disaster, as you’re heading into a presidential election,” Vasquez said. “That’s why it’s imperative that the president take those steps now.”
The Biden administration says it is continuing to strictly enforce immigration laws at the border, and families are not immune. But its enforcement initiatives are not keeping up with the volume of arrivals.
More than 800,000 migrants crossed illegally between May and September. Authorities deported about 295,000 during that span, a senior administration official told reporters Thursday.
More than 285,000 parents and children have arrived since May, but only 36,000 had been deported as of Sept. 21, according to DHS.
Families are a challenge for U.S. immigration enforcement because federal courts prohibit the long-term detention of minors. The Trump administration attempted to curb family arrivals by prosecuting parents and taking their children away - actions widely decried as violations of human rights. Trump officials then devised the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which Biden ended, to make asylum seekers wait outside the United States for a hearing.
Biden officials ended family detention in 2021. Instead, the administration is expanding a fast-track deportation program called Family Expedited Removal Management, or “FERM.” The goal is to complete asylum cases in 30 days or less, an extraordinary acceleration in a system that can take years.
Migrants in this program are able to leave their homes during the day, but they are subject to GPS monitoring and curfews from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.
More than 3,400 family members - less than 2 percent of new arrivals - have been enrolled in FERM, the latest DHS figures showed. Administration officials say those numbers will rise as they expand the program nationwide.
At Chicago’s immigration court on the 15th floor of a downtown high-rise, the hallways were packed with families on a recent school day. Parents pushed strollers, and a baby clutched a rattle as her mother, toting a Minnie Mouse diaper bag, awaited a hearing.
Most people were in regular asylum proceedings, and often had months, even years, to find lawyers who could gather evidence, interview witnesses and argue their cases at a full hearing or on appeal.
But migrants in FERM do not get a full hearing, unless they can persuade an immigration judge to give them one, leaving them with little time to seek help.
In one courtroom, a woman from Honduras in the FERM program arrived late for her court appearance because she lived two hours away by bus. A GPS tracking device blinked on her right ankle.
An immigration judge gave her two days to find a lawyer. She appeared nervous and confused, and the court interpreter asked if Spanish was her first language. She said it was.
After the hearing, the woman said in an interview that she had a third-grade education and was not sure what was happening to her case.
Two days later, she did not show up for the court appearance.
Judge Sebastian Patti said he ordered her removed from the United States, adding her name to the list of more than 1 million pending deportation orders.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned in September that children represent about 1 in 4 migrants moving within Latin America and the Caribbean, one of the highest shares in the world, and urged governments to create policies that are in the children’s best interests.
Republicans in the United States often complain of an “invasion” at the southern border, while the Biden administration is restricting asylum and promoting enforcement.
“There’s not a recognition that these are very often children with families,” UNICEF policy specialist Rhonda Fleischer said.
The National Immigrant Justice Center, a national legal nonprofit based in Chicago, and other groups have welcomed the Biden administration’s legal pathways, but they urged officials to shut down FERM, saying it risks deporting migrants to places they could be persecuted.
Center lawyers Matthew McGuire and Lisa Koop scrambled one recent day to defend John, 39, and Viv, 36, who asked that their surnames be withheld to protect them and their relatives in Colombia, in the accelerated deportation program. The couple, who have two children, had days to find a lawyer in a city they barely knew.
Viv said in an interview that she had been raped by a guerrilla member she had helped send to prison early in the country’s 52-year civil war. When he got out recently she said, he attacked her again. The couple fled to Mexico and crossed the Rio Grande to seek asylum in the United States. At the initial interview, Viv said, she froze. The asylum officer wanted shorter answers, she said.
Viv had never told anyone that she was raped - “I had tried to forget it,” she said - until the lawyer urged her to tell the immigration judge in August. The judge granted her request for a full hearing, in 2026, sparing the family for now.
Koop said hundreds of other migrants could face similar circumstances.
“There’s just so much room for error, and the system is not built to manage this,” Koop said. “This is not set up to identify viable asylum claims. This is set up to deport families.”
Other critics of programs like FERM say they aren’t rigorous enough to stop migrants from absconding when courts reject their protection claims and order them to leave the United States. DHS officials say most families are complying with the program.
Biden officials in August proposed a more-restrictive model that would assign migrant families to “community residential centers,” housing facilities where they would be required to stay for several months while their asylum cases were completed.
A White House supplemental funding request asked Congress to allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to set up and operate the facilities, where migrants would have access to medical services, legal assistance, counseling, and educational and recreational programming.
Asylum seekers would be allowed to come and go during the day, a provision that administration officials believe would exempt the facilities from the 20-day limit set by federal courts on the amount of time children can be held in immigration detention.
The White House request did not say how much the administration plans to spend on the facilities nor where they would be located. Officials involved in formulating the proposal said they have looked at using hotels along the southern border, or military barracks.