Sep 12, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Mexican families cross U.S. border in unprecedented numbers

Data: U.S. Customs and Border Protection;Note: Illegal crossings are measured by apprehensions by U.S. Border Patrol, while ports of entry crossings are measured by encounters with the Office of Field Operations; Chart: Axios Visuals

Tens of thousands of Mexican family members crossed the southern border in recent months, soaring past previous levels.

Why it matters: President Biden's decisions to end migrant family detention and launch an app for people to schedule legal border crossings have likely contributed to drawing more Mexican families, experts tell Axios.

  • At the same time, increased displacement in parts of Mexico, largely fueled by cartel violence, is likely pushing people to leave.

Zoom in: Governance concerns, poverty and watching other migrants take their chances at the U.S. are all probable factors for the rise, Cris Ramon, senior policy advisor with the advocacy group UnidosUS, told Axios.

  • But so is the new CBP One app. "When you open legal pathways, folks will take them," Ramon said.
  • The vast majority of migrants who enter the country via the app are released into the U.S. on parole, which lets them get a work permit in roughly six weeks and legally stay in the country for up to two years.
  • Parole does not guarantee a long-term pathway for staying in the U.S.

Between the lines: While the app creates a more orderly, legal way for migrants and asylum seekers to enter the U.S., Mexican families are also crossing the border illegally.

  • More than 10,000 Mexican family members were apprehended by Border Patrol after illegally crossing in July.
  • For context, just 6,000 Mexican family members crossed in the entire fiscal year 2019, which saw crisis levels of family migration under Trump.
  • The Trump administration responded to large numbers of families crossing the border with the infamous, though short-lived, family separation policy.

Zoom out: News about U.S. policies is known to spread quickly word of mouth among smugglers and migrants, Migration Policy Institute's Colleen Putzel-Kavanaugh told Axios — including that families who cross illegally are often released into the U.S. with a notice to appear in court.

  • Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters on Monday that migration patterns are complicated, and that one challenge is that "smuggling organizations see what we do, and they alter their practices in an effort to circumvent what we established."
  • Another factor is Title 42, the pandemic policy that for years allowed border officials to rapidly expel migrants at the border — but with few other consequences.
  • This led to a surge in Mexican migrants attempting to cross. "We have seen in general, across the board, is that once migratory flows get established — it is difficult to impact them," a Homeland Security official told Axios.

What to watch: The Biden administration is eyeing a host of measures to address the growing numbers of families taking a chance for parole or asylum in the U.S.

  • It has been expanding a program to more quickly deport families who do not meet the requirements for asylum. More than 19,000 family members have been returned home since May 12th, according to the official.
  • The administration is also considering forcing migrant families to remain close to the border, the L.A. Times reported.
  • Biden is also asking Congress for funding for a new kind of housing program for migrant families, while Democratic leaders in major cities have demanded the federal government do more to help them provide shelter and care for recently arrived migrants.

The bottom line: Mexican migration across the border has historically been driven by single adults — not families.

  • It is yet another sign of how quickly border demographics and trends continue to change, while the government struggles to adapt.
  • "Processing families at the border has been a fraught issue for a number of years, going back multiple administration's under both parties," the DHS official said.
  • "We're just not going to have a lasting solution here that doesn't involve Congress," the official added.
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