The deterrence policies practiced by prior administrations inhumanely criminalized, deported, and excluded migrants who legally came to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum. Some of the most notable policies ― metering, zero tolerance, and the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) ― played to the growing xenophobia against Central American and Mexican migrants while exacerbating the humanitarian crisis at the border. 

Throughout his campaign, Biden promised to restore humane treatment for immigrants arriving in the U.S. However, President Biden’s administration faces the unique challenges of overturning the overlapping web of policies from prior administrations that decimated the asylum system while safely and fairly processing asylum seekers during a global pandemic. The best and quickest way to begin addressing these challenges is to expand processing and refrain from the continued use of deterrence policies, setting an example and precedent for future administrations. 

Campaign Promises and Actions So Far

As a presidential candidate, Biden pledged to restore the country’s asylum system and tackle the root causes of migration. This included ending harmful policies such as MPP and metering, increasing funding for humanitarian organizations and the government’s asylum system, and ending the use of private detention facilities.

In his first two weeks in office, President Biden issued five executive orders to fulfill his immigration promises. The orders called for creating a task force to reunite families separated by zero tolerance, improving the U.S. asylum system, and addressing the root causes of migration from the Northern Triangle countries (NTC) of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. 

Biden also sent Congress an expansive immigration bill that would increase asylum processing capacity, eliminate the one-year deadline for asylum filings, and provide employment authorization for asylum seekers. This bill also advanced the modernization of border security through technology and heightened Customs and Border Protection (CBP) responsibilities regarding migrant welfare. The deliverables for the executive orders have months-long timelines, and the immigration bill is still under congressional review. While the actions outlined in the bill will take time to manifest, migrants are still arriving and seeking asylum within the U.S. 

Critiques and Continued Challenges

Despite the change in administration, there already has been substantial outcry about its shortcomings in protecting immigrants and asylum seekers. One of the president’s first actions was to halt deportations for 100 days, but this was immediately challenged in court and overturned. As a result, Immigration and Customs Enforcement continue to conduct removals.

The Biden administration was seemingly slow to prepare for the increasing number of migrants arriving at the border. According to the Washington Post, the arrivals are being packed into holding centers under conditions that constitute a “life-or-death emergency.” The administration recently asked Department of Homeland Security officials to volunteer at the overcrowded border stations where unaccompanied minors are being held. And, the Biden administration is pressing Mexican authorities to intercept migrants and detain children who intend to seek asylum in the U.S. 

The most consistent criticism has been over the Biden administration’s continued use of a public health order the Trump administration issued at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to close the southern border to asylum seekers. In January 2021 alone, over 64,000 migrants were turned away under the policy, known as Title 42. That number increased to over 72,000 in February. Families with young children who try to seek asylum are being returned to Mexico for indefinite periods. 

Unaccompanied migrant children are the only demographic exempt from Title 42. The number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border is reaching record highs. Biden administration is currently responsible for over 18,000 unaccompanied minors, which is predicted to grow in the months to come. 

To continue increasing holding capacity for children, the administration is considering repurposing military bases, partnering with nonprofits, and outsourcing to private detention companies. The administration has also opened shelters near the border to house these children until they are placed with adult sponsors. Still, these makeshift facilities face the same challenges as temporary facilities that failed under prior administrations

On February 19, 2021, the Biden administration slowly allowed migrants kept in Mexico under the MPP program to begin entering the U.S. and wait for their cases to be adjudicated. Migrants registering for MPP entry have become distressed over the online platform’s inaccessibility to register and often wait until the early hours of the morning to make sure they receive their confirmations. Others can barely afford to pay for internet access on their phones. The administration also did not provide accommodations for migrants who are disabled or struggle with technology or literacy. After these migrants have registered online and receive notice to appear at the border, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) test them for COVID-19 on the Mexican side before bringing them to ports of entry. Then, these migrants are processed again by CBP before they are released to join family members who sponsor them. Without qualified family members to sponsor, migrants are typically held in detention. Those without sponsorship typically remain detained. In the meantime, humanitarian organizations in U.S. border towns temporarily shelter and care for recently released migrants before they leave to join their sponsors. They also place those testing positive for COVID-19 in hotel rooms to isolate and recover

As of early April, the federal government processed more than 5,000 of the estimated 25,000 MPP migrants. As the daily number of entries continues to increase with corresponding federal assistance, these shelters and organizations may not be able to operate at the capacity that is necessary to meet projected trends. 

The Biden administration must move quickly and to effectively process incoming migrants, no matter how many arrive. 

Recommendations — Expand Capacity and Enhance Processing

Thus far, the Biden administration’s actions on the southern border reveal the difficulty of the situation and the difficulty of resisting decades-old reliance on outdated deterrence policy, which history has proven is ineffective in deterring growing numbers of migrants from coming to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum. Instead of centering detention, the approach towards asylum processing at the border must change by increasing the U.S. government’s ability to quickly and safely receive asylum seekers and expeditiously process them. 

While President Biden intends to expand border processing capacity by hiring more asylum officers and training border officers to care more appropriately for people in their custody, the government should invest more in the welfare of apprehended migrants. 

In general, health care workers should be present to meet the demands of the rise in asylum seekers. Necessary vaccinations should be made available to every migrant, which would prevent the spread of various diseases ― from the common flu to the novel coronavirus ― through detention centers and the general public. Furthermore, vaccinating migrants is more economical than later requiring emergency and hospital treatments. The Biden administration has secured enough shots to vaccinate the U.S. population twice over; vaccinating incoming asylum seekers protects them and the Americans they encounter.

Increased border processing capacity also means releasing asylum seekers from detention. Reimplementing the Family Case Management Program ― which was discontinued under the Trump administration despite near-perfect levels of success ― would not only be more humane, efficient, and cost-effective but also ensure that asylum seekers can settle into their new homes and appear for their court hearings. Furthermore, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) should receive more funding to find sponsors that make a good cultural and linguistic fit for unaccompanied minors. Implementing these suggestions would facilitate more efficient and expansive processing and alleviate some quarantine concerns given the crowded nature of detention facilities. 

Through official communications, President Biden has reinforced that migrants who continue to arrive at the southern border will not be let into the country. But like his predecessors, this messaging failed to curb spikes in border apprehensions and the arrival of NTC asylum seekers. Through executive orders, the president has pledged to work with NTC nations to manage the root causes of migration from these countries and to study the role of climate change in future migration patterns. While the president plans to provide NTC countries a total of $4 billion to support their efforts to improve the livelihoods of their nationals to prevent them from migrating to the U.S., this excludes the NTC migrants who are already on their way. 

Ultimately, Congress must expand legal channels for migration to achieve a more permanent solution. The Central American Minors program ― which allows NTC children to reunite with their parents who legally reside in the U.S. ― was reopened in March. It should be extended so that NTC children can join any legal adult relatives ― such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings, or cousins ― with lawful presence in the country. The President also acknowledged that NTC countries are currently facing extreme violence, poverty, and climate disasters and could meet the criteria for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) eligibility, which the U.S.recently extended to Venezuelan refugees.

Deterrence policies will not prevent migrants from reaching their destination. The president must exclude them from his immigration plans if he does not wish to exacerbate the mistreatment of asylum seekers at the southern border. By expanding capacity and expediting the processing of asylum seekers at the border, the administration will be better equipped to manage future upticks in people who come to the southern border only to seek asylum and safety in the U.S. through a legal pathway.