Originally Published in the Los Angeles Times
Opinion by The Times Editorial Board - February 18, 2021
The Biden administration on Friday will begin allowing asylum seekers who have been living in limbo along the U.S.-Mexico border to enter the U.S. to await processing of their applications, a welcome redress of a cruelty inflicted by the Trump administration on up to 70,000 people seeking sanctuary. But it also will force the new administration to confront a thorny situation that has bedeviled the U.S. government for years.
Under the new policy, up to 25,000 migrants in President Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program — officially, the Migration Protection Protocols — will be allowed to enter the U.S. in small batches at the San Ysidro, Calif., El Paso and Brownsville, Texas, ports of entry after they have been screened for the coronavirus. Then their cases will be transferred to courts in cities near where they have relatives or places to stay.
Mindful of the message this might send, the administration has also warned those without pending asylum cases not to try to enter the country, though in truth some asylum seekers have been gaining admission since Biden suspended new enrollments in the Remain in Mexico program.
This is where the problem is thorniest. Under U.S. law, anyone can show up at the border and request asylum. Those who asylum officers believe have demonstrated a credible fear of persecution if returned home are allowed to remain in the U.S. as their cases work through the immigration system. But the courts are hopelessly swamped with some 1.3 million pending cases, nearly double the caseload at the start of the Trump administration, and each case can take years to resolve.
Meanwhile, living conditions have deteriorated in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — the home countries of most of the migrants reaching the U.S.-Mexico border — as back-to-back hurricanes ravaged regions that were already strugglingwith drought, limited job prospects and gang violence. Although Biden has embraced a regional approach to try to ameliorate those “push” factors, chances of success are not clear, and the timing of any improvement in conditions even less so. Meanwhile, migrants continue to move north.
At heart, the administration must adhere to a humane approach for dealing with the new arrivals while working quickly to expand the immigration court system to meet the challenge. As the Obama administration correctly noted seven years ago, the intermittent surges of migrants at the border constitute a regional humanitarian crisis that cannot be resolved by simply trying to lock the door, as Trump and his immigration hard-liners did.
Smart and comprehensive immigration reforms will be critical to maintaining a flexible and functional immigration system, including properly handling asylum requests. Biden is moving in the right direction.