President Joe Biden, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meet.

Biden seeks allies on migration crisis at US-Mexico border

At the North American Leaders Summit in Mexico City on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden made it clear that migration at the southern border is one of the most pressing issues.

The World

President Joe Biden, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meet at the 10th North American Leaders' Summit at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

Andrew Harnik/AP

As North American leaders gather in Mexico City this week, US President Joe Biden has made it clear that the migration crisis at the southern border is one of the most pressing issues for his administration.

Border officials encountered a record of almost 2.4 million migrants at the southern border in 2022, shattering the old record of 1.7 million set the year prior, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

“Something you see all over Latin America right now is that people are fleeing,” said Adam Isaacson, a security expert on Latin America. He said the pandemic has led people to flee their home countries. On key points along the way, both to other countries and the US, people get stranded, including the Mexican side of the US border.

US immigration authorities say they don't have the capacity to process so many migrants, and have been turning them back to Mexico using provisions of the US code. Many of these people have been waiting for a chance to be admitted into the US for years.

Northern Mexico is a dangerous place to wait, Issacson said. Many migrants are subject to extortion, assault, abuse, rape and kidnapping, but very few organized crime cases are ever brought to justice, he added.

The US side of the border has also seen many arrivals. In El Paso, Texas, authorities are using a convention center as an emergency shelter.

Republicans have been pushing Biden to travel to the southern border and witness the situation himself. In a CNN interview in October 2021, he said he hadn't found the time. 

This week, Biden visited the border for the first time during his presidency.

Julia Gillard, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute said he waited this long because immigration has been a politically challenging issue.

“On the one hand, he's wanted to project that he is welcoming to immigrants. On the other hand, he's wanted to be really tough at the border, because high numbers of border arrivals are difficult politically.”

Gillard said Biden didn’t seem to have a concrete plan for the border until now. Just last week, he announced a new legal pathway for migrants coming from Nicaragua, Haiti, Cuba and Venezuela, who make up a significant portion of border arrivals. They will be allowed to apply for US work permits if they pass a background check and find sponsorship. 

Biden also announced a smartphone app for asylum-seekers waiting in Mexico called CBP One. The app allows migrants to schedule an appointment at a port of entry and make an asylum claim. 

But these are just “baby steps,” according to Maureen Mayer, vice president for Programs at the Washington Office on Latin America. 

She said the new rules might reduce the number of migrants who show up at the border, but the asylum application process still needs major improvements, including investing more in immigration judges and court infrastructure in the US.

The average asylum-seeker currently waits from two to four years for a court to hear their claims. 

Julia Gillard also said that allowing more people to apply for asylum from their home countries would help them avoid having to make a dangerous journey.

To qualify for asylum in the US, people need to show a well-founded fear of persecution. But the reality is that most migrants applying for asylum at the border are not likely to qualify.

This represents a missed opportunity for the US economy, said Giovanni Piero, who studies the impact of immigration on the job market at the University of California, Davis.

He said there are about 6 million jobs that cannot be filled, such as restaurant service, health care and elderly assistance.

“Those are jobs which don't require a college education,” he noted.

Most migrants arriving at the southern border never get a chance to even apply for permission to work in the US. Providing that, he said, would be a big step toward a long-term solution.

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