By Jorge G. Castañeda
Since the first days of Joe Biden’s presidency, his administration has insisted that the growing number of migrants being apprehended at the US-Mexico border is not a “crisis,” but rather a normal, seasonal spike. US officials have even argued that the controversy was concocted entirely by former President Donald Trump and other Republicans.
While the Biden administration was not totally wrong about Trump, reality has since rebutted its claims. The situation on the border today is indeed a crisis, both for the United States and Mexico. As of late September, some 15,000 migrants and asylum seekers, most of them Haitian, are sheltering from the sun under the International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas. They have brought the migration issue roaring back to the fore.
All summer, US immigration authorities waited for the numbers at the border to fall, but they kept rising, even as the excruciating heat kicked in. Monthly apprehensions topped 200,000 in July and again in August – their highest level since 2000. The sudden appearance of thousands of Haitians on the American side of the border (rather than in the Mexican towns of Matamoros, Reynosa, or Tijuana to the south) demonstrates that the flow is not easing.
This was all foreseeable. The situation in Haiti, terrible even in good years, became catastrophic with the chaos that followed the assassination of the country’s president in July. The subsequent political turmoil was soon followed by an earthquake and a series of hurricanes and tropical storms that have left the country as battered as it has ever been. Haitians have been departing for years, first to Brazil and then to Chile. But as the economic and legal situation in each of those countries has grown less hospitable, they have begun to drift toward the US. And owing to the events of this summer, their numbers have surged.
The crisis on the US border is only part of the story. Tapachula, a Mexican city of 350,000 along the Guatemalan border, now shelters (in squalid conditions) 50,000-100,000 asylum seekers, roughly half of whom are Haitian. Mexican authorities are forcing migrants to remain there while their claims are processed. But that process can take over a year, and migrants are increasingly seeking to break out and travel north. Several caravans, each comprising hundreds of refugees and migrants, have departed in recent weeks, leading Mexican immigration officials to herd them back to Tapachula. There have been reports of family separation, extortion, and beatings (some of which have been caught on video).
Despite such brutality, asylum seekers of several nationalities have continued to amass on the US-Mexico border, demonstrating that containment is not so simple. Although Mexico’s defense ministry says that it has deployed more than 14,000 troops to “stop all migration,” the truth is that the country lacks the financial resources and manpower to carry out a sustained mission of that kind.
When US President Barack Obama asked Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto for help blocking migrants in 2014, Mexican authorities complied willingly, but only for a couple of years. By 2017, Mexico’s deportation numbers had declined again, and America’s apprehensions and deportations had begun to rise – a trend that is reaching its peak today.
The same pattern is likely to be repeated. Mexican efforts are obviously insufficient, even if they are significant and often humiliating. The US cannot simply turn away the Haitians in Del Rio. Nor are the solutions on offer devoid of costs. To resolve the latest border crisis, Biden will have to turn a blind eye to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s disastrous mismanagement of the economy and the pandemic, as well as his subversion of the rule of law and Mexico’s incipient democracy.
The best immediate fix is to grant temporary protected status to the Haitians who have already entered the US. (Though TPS is theoretically temporary, it would probably last indefinitely in practice.) Biden also should ask the transit countries – mainly Chile, Mexico, and Panama – to furnish migrants with proper asylum and work papers and allow them to remain under humane, hospitable conditions.
Such a request obviously must come with resources to help these countries foot the bill for hosting the remaining Haitians. The only question, then, is where the money can best be spent – on Haitian migrants in the US, or in Chile, Panama, and Mexico?
Granting TPS to the Haitians at the border would probably encourage others to come. But the trend would not last forever. As with the Haitian boat people in the 1990s, such flows eventually stop for various economic, social, and cultural reasons. And while this approach might also encourage Cubans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, and others to travel north and try their luck, the overall numbers would be on a scale that the US, a rich country with 330 million inhabitants, could easily manage.
As for the political fallout and the Democrats’ electoral prospects in 2022 and 2024, a more humane approach is certainly no worse than the alternative of forcing Haitian children onto planes and flying them back to a country in the throes of discord, destitution, and despair.
This article has been republished through a partnership with Project Syndicate, which produces and delivers original, high-quality commentaries to a global audience. It features exclusive contributions by prominent political leaders, policymakers, scholars, business leaders, and civic activists from around the world, providing news media and their readers cutting-edge analysis and insight, regardless of ability to pay.