Relative quiet has prevailed along the southern U.S. border since Friday, despite widespread fears that ending a pandemic-era policy to immediately expel most migrants, even asylum seekers, would set off a stampede from Mexico.
A surge in migrants did happen, in the run-up to the expiration of the pandemic-era expulsion policy, known as Title 42. Uncertain of the impact of new deterrent measures, migrants braved turbulent rivers, cut through concertina wire and scaled the steel border wall to reach the United States and turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents. On some days last week, apprehensions reached about 11,000, among the highest recorded.
Alejandro Mayorkas, Homeland Security secretary, said on Sunday that agents apprehended only 6,300 migrants on Friday and 4,200 on Saturday. The Biden administration’s new policy, combining the carrot of new legal pathways with the stick of more punitive measures for unlawful crossings, was working, Mr. Mayorkas said in television interviews.
Most migrants now must prove that they were first denied asylum in a country they passed through en route to the United States. And they could face criminal prosecution, prolonged detention and a five-year ban from re-entering.
But the lull could be the calm before another storm.
Economic, political and environmental forces driving people to the United States are unlikely to subside in the coming months, and the new U.S. policies may not all survive. Minutes after the new policies took effect, immigrant advocacy groups sued to block a provision designed to discourage asylum seekers from coming to the border, likening it to a transit ban struck down during the Trump administration. And hours before Title 42 expired, a federal judge in Florida issued an order barring the release of migrants from U.S. custody without hearing dates. (The U.S. government is challenging the decision.)
Beyond U.S. borders, political instability, gang violence and climate change will continue to spur emigration.
Much of the developing world, from Africa and Asia to South America and the Caribbean, is still reeling from economic ruin wrought by Covid-19 and exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.
“Everyone is looking at the arrivals at the border, but the root of the problem lies in push factors inside countries of origin that are going to persist,” said Justin Gest, a political scientist at George Mason University who studies immigration. “When crises occur, they generate northbound flows,” he said.
In recent years, there has been a growing exodus from troubled countries in the Western Hemisphere, such as Venezuela, Cuba and Haiti. Unlike Europe, where multiple countries are potential destinations for migrants, in the Western Hemisphere, almost all roads lead to one country, the United States.
And, beyond the factors pushing migrants out of their home countries, the magnet drawing people to the United States is the labor market. Unemployment stands at its lowest level in decades, yet there are millions of unfilled jobs.
“There has never been a better moment for migrants to seek work in the U.S.,” said Wayne Cornelius, an immigration scholar and emeritus professor at the University of California, San Diego.
“Even most of those seeking asylum are motivated powerfully by the prospect of higher-wage employment, and many have contacts who can steer them quickly to job vacancies,” he said.
The Biden administration policy aims to dissuade migrants from setting out on the journey to the border.
So while Title 42 is no longer in effect, other, new restrictions are. Migrants are barred from requesting asylum at the border unless they prove that a country they transited through denied them protection. Exceptions will be made only under extraordinary circumstances, such as medical conditions, or for asylum seekers who used a mobile app to secure an appointment at an official port of entry. So far, the number of appointments has been extremely limited.
The Biden administration has announced it will open regional centers, starting in Colombia and Guatemala, where migrants can apply for refugee status and undergo initial eligibility screening for legal entry into the United States. Canada and Spain have agreed to accept some of these asylum seekers.
Mr. Gest, the political scientist, said the United States wants to spread the responsibility for absorbing so many migrants, “but it’s not clear that is going to work.”
Since early this year, Washington has been encouraging Venezuelans, Cubans, Nicaraguans and Haitians to apply for a “humanitarian parole” program that allows them to fly directly to the United States and stay for two years, if they have a financial sponsor.
But many migrants hail from countries not covered by the program, such as Colombia, Ecuador and Honduras. And even for the four targeted countries, the number of people trying to gain entry surpasses the 30,000 monthly slots, and many people do not qualify because they lack connections in the United States.
Shauyuri Mejias, 48, of Venezuela, studied the program but realized she could not participate. So she trekked through the treacherous Darien Gap, a jungle that straddles Colombia and Panama, with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchild.
“We are the first generation of our family to come to the United States. We have no one to lean on here,” said Ms. Mejias, sitting on the bottom bunk in a shelter in El Paso.
The Mejias family managed to use the government app to book an interview at a port of entry and crossed the border before Title 42 was lifted. Among the many frustrated migrants amassed in Mexico, however, patience is bound to wear thin. Historically, there is no conclusive evidence that more aggressive enforcement and more punitive sanctions deter mass migration.
El Paso, one of the most affected border cities in recent months, recorded a sharp drop in migrant arrests, to just 639 on Saturday, according to internal data shared with The New York Times, compared with 2,131 on May 10. But that masks potential challenges ahead.
U.S. intelligence estimates that 60,000 to 65,000 migrants were on the Mexican side of the border, according to Raul Ortiz, the Border Patrol chief. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said that smuggling networks were spreading misinformation that the border would be open once Title 42 expired.
A renewed surge could deepen both the humanitarian crisis and political headaches for the Biden administration. In recent weeks, shelter operators and physicians in border towns have reported a spike in hospitalizations for injuries sustained by migrants who climbed the border wall.
While scaling the towering steel barrier under the cover of darkness, Rosmarie Cepeda slipped and plummeted to the ground on the El Paso side of the border, shattering her left foot. She underwent surgery, and could take six months to recover. The 40-year-old Venezuelan cook said she decided to take her chances after failing to secure an appointment on the mobile app.
“I was determined to get into the United States. I have three children in Venezuela who depend on me, said Ms. Cepeda, who is recovering in a church shelter and has to use a wheelchair.
A new large influx would tax border processing centers. To ease overcrowding, migrants have at times been released from custody without a date to report to immigration court for hearings.
That practice is coming under fire from Republicans as they gear up to make immigration central to their 2024 election campaigns.
If legal challenges make facilities dangerously overcrowded, the optics will hurt the administration, said Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a think tank. “The American public will blame the president.”