Is Biden to blame for the border crisis? How U.S. policies aren’t keeping up with global migration trends.
Incremental changes by individual presidential administrations aren’t a substitute for comprehensive reform.
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More than 2 million people have been arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border in the last year — a historic influx that is impacting the lives of millions of migrants and changing politics across the country.
The current immigration crisis is a result of many interconnected changes. The United States expelled a record 1.3 million migrants during the 2022 fiscal year, thanks in no small part to the ongoing Title 42 policy, a public health order put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2020 to curb the spread of covid-19. And migrants crossing the border today are more likely to be fleeing oppressive governments than a decade ago, when people were more likely to cross the border hoping for better work. Red-state governors blame the Biden administration and have publicized their own efforts to send migrants thousands of miles away from the U.S. border into cities led by Democrats in the months before the midterm elections.
These changes are putting new strain on the immigration system, but Washington hasn’t significantly reformed immigration policy since 1990. The federal government is tasked with executing dated and dysfunctional laws. Priorities can swing wildly from administration to administration.
As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden promised to “take urgent action” to undo the Trump administration’s immigration policy and “modernize America’s immigration system.” As president, however, changes at the border made by Biden have been mostly incremental. His administration has even quietly resumed construction on certain sections of the border wall.
Congress remains deadlocked on how to enact immigration reform, leaving the task of managing the influx of people — a rapidly escalating problem — to the Biden White House. But the causes of the current migration boom are complicated and likely won’t be solved unless the country adopts comprehensive solutions. Migration trends have shifted due to global economic and political turmoil, not to mention evolving U.S. foreign policy and climate change.
But there are some things that many agree would help, including expanding the government’s capacity for processing asylum-seekers. Congress must first examine what it is hoping to achieve with its immigration policy — how to decide whom to allow entry into the country legally and why. The U.S. labor market is a consideration, especially as employers struggle to hire people for open positions.
Numbers show how migration patterns — and U.S. enforcement — have changed
The record number of arrests at the border reflects changing migration patterns and enforcement practices. More migrants are coming to the border from countries with oppressive political regimes, like Venezuela and Cuba, that allow them to ask for asylum in the United States, compared to past years, when many migrants from Mexico came to the U.S. hoping to escape poverty.
In fact, for the first time this year, the number of people attempting to cross the border who came from four countries in the northern part of Central America — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — is lower than the number of people entering from other countries.
There was no single event that caused this shift, experts told Grid. As Venezuela experiences hyperinflation and economic collapse, citizens have started leaving. Cubans have started to show up at the U.S.-Mexico border after Nicaragua removed travel restrictions for Cubans, so they can fly to Nicaragua then travel north to the U.S.-Mexico border to enter the United States.
“People are coming because of a compounding number of variables,” said Ariel G. Ruiz Soto, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “There’s economic depression and also a change of perspective taking place: Venezuelan migrants are coming because they’ve lost hope that changes in the government will happen.”
People abroad also expected Biden to be more permissive than Donald Trump when it comes to immigration, creating a perception that now is a better time to try to enter the U.S. than five years ago. In fact, the Biden administration has removed a record number of more than 1.3 million migrants from the country over the last fiscal year, in part due to the Title 42 policy established during the Trump administration. As of September, there had been an all-time high of more than 2 million arrests for the year at the southern border, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data.
Now that many migrants are being kicked out of the country under Title 42, a significant percentage are trying to reenter the U.S. within a year. There have always been repeat attempts to cross the border, but this rate of recidivism climbed significantly after Title 42 was enacted in 2020. There are now hundreds of thousands more people attempting to cross the border multiple times a year than five years ago. The data showing 2 million arrests at the border released by CBP, therefore, overestimates the number of people who are trying to enter the country.
In 2015, 14 percent of people who were arrested at the border were arrested multiple times in a single year, according to CBP. After Title 42 was enacted in 2020, that recidivism rate climbed to 26 percent in 2020 and 27 percent in 2022. If recidivism rates are similar this year to last year, then about 1 in 4 — or 500,000 — arrests at the border were for people trying to enter the U.S. who had already tried to migrate at least once this year.
A change in global patterns means a different challenge for the United States
Something fairly remarkable happened on the U.S.-Mexico border in August of this year. For the first time ever that month, migrants from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Central America — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — accounted for less than half of those encountered by U.S. authorities at the border.
The numbers from those four countries have declined somewhat, but the much more significant trend is the increasing number of people reaching the border after much longer journeys, driven primarily by four countries: Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Haiti.
All these countries to varying extents share political dysfunction and economic stagnation.
“Since around 2015, state fragility has been the key driving force of migration,” Manuel Orozco, director of the migration, remittances and development program at Inter-American Dialogue, told Grid.
Migration from Cuba to the United States is nothing new, but there’s been a recent surge since the nationwide protests of 2021, which were sparked by public anger over food and medicine shortages and the government’s response to the pandemic, and met with a harsh crackdown by authorities. Unlike previous migration waves, when Cubans fled the island by boat, Cubans are increasingly traveling through Central America and Mexico, aided by Nicaragua’s decision late last year to drop visa requirements for Cubans. In April of this year, CBP documented a record 34,930 Cubans at the border. In April 2020, there were only 164.
For decades, the number of Nicaraguans seeking asylum in the United States was negligible compared with other Central American countries, but the numbers jumped sharply after 2018, when President Daniel Ortega responded to protests against living standards and benefits cuts with a harsh crackdown on political dissent that killed hundreds and continues to this day. Around 111,000 Nicaraguans were detained trying to enter the United States in the 2022 fiscal year, an increase from 50,722 in all of 2021 and just 3,164 in 2020.
No country has seen as dramatic an out-migration in recent years as Venezuela, which has been caught in a doom loop of economic collapse, political repression and rampant violent crime since around 2014. Around 6.8 million Venezuelans have fled the country since then — more than 20 percent of its population. The vast majority fled to other countries in Latin America but have since chosen to head north amid economic instability in many parts of the region in the wake of the pandemic.
Flying to Mexico and then heading to the U.S. border used to be the preferred route, but since Mexico imposed, at the request of the Biden administration last year, visa requirements on Venezuelans, an increasing number, including many families with children, have been traveling overland on foot through the Darién Gap, a notoriously dangerous stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama.
Yael Schacher, Americas and Europe director at Refugees International, spoke with Grid from Guatemala, where she has been touring migrant shelters. She said that a shelter she visited near the Honduran border “was just filled with Venezuelans.”
“Venezuelans are on every border on every part of the journey toward the United States,” Schacher said, adding that the demographic profile of these migrants has also recently changed. “What we’re now seeing is the poorest and the people without any means are leaving. If you had the ability to get out earlier, you already would have.”
The fact that these three countries are ruled by leftist, anti-American governments has given a palpable — but somewhat contradictory — ideological cast to the current crisis. When releasing its September numbers, CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus even explicitly blamed “failing communist regimes” for the current wave of migration. But those fleeing have not always received the warmest welcome from the United States’ staunchest anti-communists.
The vast majority of those bused or flown to blue states by Republican governors in Arizona, Texas and Florida in recent months have been Venezuelans.
“So much of the growth in migrants is coming from countries that U.S. conservatives paint as socialist hellscapes,” Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Grid. “So why in the world would they be yelling at the Biden administration for not sending more people back to those regimes?”
For all the difficulties they have in reaching the U.S., once they get here, Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans are for the most part not sent back to the countries they fled. This is in part because the U.S. has few diplomatic relations with those countries’ governments.
Haitians, another significant recent migrant population, do not have that same advantage. The number of Haitians encountered by U.S. authorities at the border reached a high of 17,638 in September 2021 but plunged to just 908 the following month after the Biden administration aggressively ramped up its use of deportation flights. Last May brought another round of deportation flights, though many migrants remain undeterred. Some 85 percent of the migrants currently waiting to claim asylum in Reynosa, Mexico, across the border from McAllen, Texas, are Haitian.
The situation back in Haiti has certainly not improved. Long plagued by endemic poverty, Haiti has been in a state of acute political chaos since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last year. Gang violence and hunger have reached a level where the government last week took the extremely unpopular step of calling for international military intervention to restore order. The aggressive deportation of Haitians compared with other Latin American nationalities has led to accusations of racist double standards, particularly after the notorious incident last year when Border Patrol agents on horseback were filmed chasing Haitian migrants. The complaints of double standards have only grown in light of the relatively warm welcome given to Ukrainian refugees, more than 20,000 of whom have crossed the Mexico-U.S. border and only a fraction of whom have been turned away.
“What’s happened over the last year or two is that we’ve gotten so far from any kind of uniform asylum policy,” Schacher said. “We have one that’s completely dependent on nationality. How you’re going to be treated at the border completely depends on where you came from.”
Biden has made small, but significant, changes to the immigration system
Despite widespread criticism from the right about today’s “failing” immigration system, immigration policy now is only incrementally different from five years ago.
Biden inherited the same set of tools as Trump, and though he moved away from some Trump-era policies — like the travel ban on people from Muslim-majority countries — he has continued using many of the same approaches to immigration as the last administration.
Biden has continued using the controversial Title 42 policy established by the Trump administration during the pandemic, which allows the U.S. government to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants from the country each year because of coronavirus-related health concerns. Last year, the Biden administration flew thousands of Haitian migrants seeking asylum in the United States back to Haiti. Migrants who are not kicked out of the country have to wait three to five years to receive a hearing that determines whether they can claim asylum, and it can take months before they have the proper paperwork to seek work.
“Biden came in talking about undoing [a lot of] policies, but in reality he has undone almost none of them,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former policy adviser for CBP.
Biden has made some changes to Trump’s approach, most notably stopping a program created by the Trump administration that sent migrants who had crossed the border back to Mexico to await their immigration hearings. He has narrowed the expulsions under Title 42 so that children and, increasingly, families are not kicked out of the country.
Biden also halted construction of the border wall that was emblematic of Trump’s immigration policy — though he has not stopped it entirely. Recently, the administration decided to close gaps in the wall in high-traffic areas near Yuma, Arizona.
Even with these changes, the immigration system is in dire need of updating from Congress, experts told Grid. Advocates for immigrants argue there is more the Biden administration should do to make the migration process humane and try to stem root causes of migration.
“Things are definitely better than with the prior administration. That’s a low bar though — it’s not much to ask that peoples’ children aren’t being taken away from them,” said Efrén C. Olivares, deputy legal director for the Southern Policy Law Center. “There are many ways the government could address its system in a much better way without having to wait for comprehensive immigration reform.”
Legal immigration peaked in 2016. The U.S. is facing a labor shortage.
Meanwhile, the United States has been suffering a severe labor shortage, something that immigration policy could address.
In his most recent press conference, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said that it would be possible to achieve a so-called soft landing — a decrease in inflation that doesn’t induce a recession or large increase in unemployment — if, among other things, “we get more labor supply, which would help.”
While there are a number of ways to do this, it’s simply the case that there are, right now, millions of people who want to live and work in the United States but are not allowed to.
Across the country, industries have involuntarily shrunk. There are over 11 million job openings, about twice the number of total unemployed workers. While in some cases employers can raise wages or increase benefits in order to attract more reluctant workers, in many cases there is simply less business happening. There’s not one single cause, whether it’s workers retiring, leaving the labor force due to the pandemic or simply choosing not to work in certain sectors that demand particularly grueling work.
At the same time, thanks to a decline in legal immigration during the Trump administration that was exacerbated by the pandemic, there are some 1.7 million “missing” workers, according to University of California, Davis, economist Giovanni Peri. And it took until late last year until the level of foreign-born workers matched what it was in February 2020. In 2021, according to the Census Bureau, net international migration fell to 247,000, compared with over 1 million in 2016.
Legal immigration to the United States peaked in 2016 and has since declined, thanks to a combination of stricter policies implemented by the Trump administration and then covid-19. There has been a “very large recent decline, and immigration has not at all recovered from that decline,” said Michael Clemens, an economist at the Center for Global Development.
As the Fed laments the high number of job openings compared with the number of unemployed workers, arguing that this is a sign of a labor market that’s putting upward pressure on prices, employers complain about not being able to find people to fill open positions.
Immigrants, Peri argued, play a crucial role in the labor force. As the overall population gets older, leading to more retirements, foreign-born workers “are projected to be the only group in the U.S. labor force that was actually growing.”
When you look at specific sectors that employ disproportionately immigrant labor, like hospitality and food service, Peri said, overall employment is notably down.
“If you have a bottleneck you can’t fill like [hiring] waiters or dishwashers, you scale down business, you don’t open, and you end up not creating other types of jobs,” Peri said.
This effect shows up in the immigration system, where the H-2B visa, which is designed for nonagricultural, seasonal or otherwise temporary labor, hits its statutory cap very quickly, indicating that, if the cap were higher, more employers would find more workers overseas.
“Employers go through the process of applying for a worker with one of these visas at a rate that is around five times the supply of them under the law. That’s a tangible sign of businesses that can’t engage in business, can’t produce or provide services or do trade,” Clemens said. “Specific workers they need can’t be found.”
And it’s not just lower-wage, in-person labor that goes undone when immigrants are missing, Clemens said.
“Entrepreneurship is a critical driver of economic growth and employment creation. At every level of firm size, immigrants are substantially represented. They’re more likely than natives to find everything between little dry cleaners and Fortune 500 companies,” Clemens said.
“The decline in immigration that was seen during Trump and since the pandemic has been very acute at the high skill level,” Clemens said.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.