By Scott Bixby
The caravan could add as many as 11,000 people to the hundreds of thousands of migrants currently stuck in limbo near the U.S.-Mexico border.
As the largest caravan of migrants so far this year journeys into central Mexico, the continued enforcement of a public health order barring their admission into the United States threatens to exacerbate already deteriorating humanitarian conditions on the southern border.
The caravan, largely composed of asylum seekers from Venezuela, could add as many as 11,000 people to the population of migrants currently stuck in limbo near the U.S.-Mexico border—estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands. Many of them have been living in dangerous conditions for months or longer awaiting the final repeal of Title 42, the public health order that has effectively halted asylum admissions into the United States from Central and South America.
“As a nation, we are shirking our legal and moral duty to refugees using the fig leaf of Title 42 to justify our actions,” said Judge Dana Leigh Marks, the former president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “The result of this has been the loss of countless innocent lives and incalculable trauma to hundreds, if not thousands of bona fide refugees.”
The order, first enacted by President Donald Trump in March 2020 to shut down the border as the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, was scheduled to be repealed on May 23 of this year. But a federal judge’s order in April halted that repeal indefinitely, barring asylum admissions for nearly all migrants at the border until the case is resolved. As summer, historically the time of year with the largest number of border crossings, begins, the public health/immigration order is on a collision course with would-be asylum seekers desperate to leave increasing economic and social turmoil in their countries of origin.
“To its credit, the Biden administration moved to terminate Title 42 and implement its plan to surge border resources and bolster shelter capacity,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which helps support refugees and migrants in the United States. But as arrivals remain high, O’Mara Vignarajah said, “the U.S. can and must do more to support the humane treatment of migrants across the border and throughout the region.”
The conditions on the ground in Mexico are grim. The continued expulsion of migrants under Title 42 has strained local resources to their limit, with would-be asylum seekers who have been forced back across the border struggling to find safe housing, work, and protection from organized criminal gangs who see an easy target in the vulnerable population.
“The shelters are stretched to their maximum capacity,” said Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “Migrants in border cities are often targeted by criminals, especially for kidnappings, as they are thought to have family members in the U.S. who will be able to pay their ransoms.”
Some migrants have been able to find traditional housing, albeit in hypercrowded apartments that have made COVID-19 transmission a greater risk for people who rarely have easy access to medical treatment. The resources devoted to those camps by the Mexican government are grossly insufficient, said David Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute.
“With such large numbers being expelled, criminals are literally waiting to exploit them and new arrivals,” said Bier. “More people waiting will stretch resources even thinner than ever and create greater incentives for predation by criminal organizations.”
The United States, Bier added, has been generally missing in action in aiding those it has expelled.
“I’m not aware of any work that the U.S. government has been doing to address the risks that asylum seekers face as they await Title 42’s repeal,” said Bier. “Indeed, the U.S. government is actively increasing the risks by pushing Mexico to deport more immigrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.”
Not all of those seeking admission to the United States on asylum grounds have been turned away. As Venezuelans, many of those in the latest caravan stand a good chance of entering the country, at least on a temporary basis. But the demographics of the caravan aren’t totally known, and a ruling by the Mexican supreme court last month determining that randomized citizenship screenings by immigration authorities are unconstitutional “could make it more difficult for Mexican authorities to stop and detain people to break up this caravan,” Bolter said.
“Every caravan in the past three years has been stopped or dispersed by Mexican authorities before reaching the U.S. border,” Bolter said. “It’s possible that this one could be different.”
In recent months, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has begun work identifying migrants who are at high risk of exploitation or violence in northern Mexico, particularly LGBTQ asylum seekers. But the very need for exceptions, immigration experts said, is proof that Title 42 is putting every person seeking asylum in danger.
“They are forced to wait for their chance to exercise their legal right to seek asylum in areas of Mexico that the U.S. State Department itself has deemed unsafe for travel,” O’Mara Vignarajah said. “The inconsistent application of Title 42 has incentivized families who are unable to seek protection together to send their children to the border alone—more than 12,000 times last year alone.”
Under numerous international treaties of which the United States is a signatory, the right to seek asylum is considered immutable—a fact that immigration advocates have cited as proof that the Trump and Biden administrations are violating international law by continuing to enforce Title 42.
“It flies in the face of the U.S. treaty obligations regarding the humane treatment of refugees,” said Marks, who noted that domestic immigration law, too, required that the U.S. admit asylum seekers with a sincere risk of violence or mistreatment in their country of origin. “The U.S. is bound to allow refugees who present themselves at the border expressing a fear of persecution in their homelands the opportunity to apply for asylum.”
President Joe Biden has faced deep criticism essentially since Day One for continuing to enforce Title 42—although some Trump administration officials have been quietly delighted that the Biden administration has continued to keep many of their immigration policies alive. The White House has consistently insisted that the policy, which functionally bars nearly all asylum seekers from entering the United States, is a public health policy, rather than an immigration policy.
Just as consistently, advocates for immigrant rights have called those declarations bullshit.
“A well-functioning system would screen all those arriving without authorization, funnel those with protection needs into the appropriate adjudication systems in the U.S., and quickly remove those without protection needs,” Bolten said, “without needing to go around the system to protect the most vulnerable.”
Speaking at the Summit of the Americas on Friday, Biden called meeting the challenge of migration in the Western Hemisphere a “shared responsibility… and I emphasize ‘shared.’” The summit later announced the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, which Biden called “a transformative new approach” to regional solutions to immigration issues, including cracking down on the gangs targeting migrant populations.
In the meantime, however, the thousands of people that the United States is removing from the country on a daily basis are facing increasingly dangerous conditions—with little help so far from the country that removed them.
“Title 42 has created prime hunting ground for those who exploit vulnerable asylum seekers turned away at the U.S. border,” said O’Mara Vignarajah. “As arrivals remain high, the U.S. can and must do more to support the humane treatment of migrants across the border and throughout the region.”