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Experts project increase in migrants at US-Mexico border as pandemic devastates Latin America

Immigration experts are expecting an increase in the number of migrants journeying to the US-Mexico border in the coming months following the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Latin America.

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Priscilla Alvarez
CNN — Immigration experts are expecting an increase in the number of migrants journeying to the US-Mexico border in the coming months following the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Latin America.

As countries put lock downs in place earlier this year, the number of Central Americans migrating north dropped. From March to April, arrests on the US-Mexico border plummeted from 30,389 to just over 16,000, before gradually ticking up again, according to US Customs and Border Protection data.

Ebbs and flows in migration are common, but after a pandemic that's taken the lives of thousands in Latin America, border experts expect that upward trend to continue as restrictions in Central America are eased.

"We interviewed dozens of government and NGO leaders in Central America and Mexico, and there was a broad consensus that a big migration flow is coming once restrictions on mobility are lifted," said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, adding that it's still unclear how, or if, that flow will materialize.

The Trump administration has put measures in place that it credits for keeping migrants from entering the US -- most notably, a public health order that allows the administration to swiftly return migrants, including asylum seekers, apprehended at the border. Since the order was implemented in March, the US has expelled nearly 200,000 people.

But the number of encounters at the US-Mexico border has jumped from April's low of 16,182 to 54,771 arrests in September, indicating that despite attempts to deter migrants from journeying north, conditions in home countries are likely stronger motivators.

"The consensus was that the desire of people to migrate is greater now than it's ever been because of the economic situation," Selee said, drawing on discussions with Latin American officials and organizations. "People are making judgments constantly about risk/reward."

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a dramatic toll on Latin America, where Covid-19 cases and deaths have soared and economies projected to grow have been decimated. The decline in economic growth this year, according to the Congressional Research Service, is expected to worsen income inequality and poverty in the region.

"Before the pandemic, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projected 1.6% economic growth for the region in 2020 but forecast a recession for several countries. On June 24, 2020, the IMF revised its regional forecast to a contraction of 9.4%, with almost every country in recession," the study, dated October 7, found.

The head of the United Nations regional body for Latin America and the Carribean, Alicia Bárcena, said in July that poverty in the region was expected to affect "almost 230 million people," adding that "almost 95 million of those are going to be in extreme poverty."

Earlier this month, the first major US-bound migrant caravan since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic left San Pedro Sula, Honduras and crossed into Guatemala. Director of Guatemala's Institute for Migration, Alejandra Mena, estimated 1,500 to 2,800 people entered Guatemala.

The caravan has since been dispersed, but Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador suggested earlier this month that it might have also been timed to the US presidential election.

How would a Biden administration handle this?

The potential for an increase in migrants journeying to the US-Mexico border has been acknowledged by Trump administration officials and the immigrant advocacy community which is preparing detailed recommendations for the Biden campaign on how to scale back strict border measures, according to a source familiar with discussions.

The possibility of a surge presents a conundrum to the Biden camp, which has pledged to roll back the Trump administration's strict immigration measures but also grappled behind the scenes about how to do so effectively.

Some of those pledges, like repealing regulations that have made seeking asylum in the US exceedingly difficult, could take months. But in the near future, the most urgent challenge for a possible Biden administration might be how to execute on those promises, while acknowledging the potential for a spike in migrants at the US-Mexico border.

There are also thousands of migrants already waiting at the border as part of the Trump administration's so-called "remain in Mexico" policy, which requires asylum seekers to stay in Mexico until their US court date. The Supreme Court said this week it will take up a case challenging the policy, though it likely won't be considered until next year.

"It's learning about how you manage influxes. One thing our system has never had is good capacity to rapidly expand to manage and process large numbers of people as they arrive, particularly if it's not patterns we've seen previously," said Theresa Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

"If Biden wins and there's an incoming new administration, they'll have to consider what policy changes they make," Brown said.

The intricacies of immigration policy are not new to Biden. The Obama administration also faced influxes in arrivals, including unaccompanied children in 2014.

"The task at hand is two fold in a big picture way: One, there needs to be an immediate and speedy rollback of the significant devastation to the already harmful immigration system that the Trump administration has executed over the last 4 years," said Alida Garcia, vice president of advocacy at Fwd.us. "But then there's also the building to the vision, not letting that be enough."

Part of the strategy on the border might be partnering with nonprofits to assist with processing and ensure that people show up to their immigration hearings, said Kerri Talbot, director of federal advocacy at the Immigration Hub.

"It's not going to be overnight. That's the tricky part," Talbot said. "Everyone will have to push as fast as possible to get that infrastructure up and running."

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