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What to know about the situation at the US-Mexico border

Posted February 12, 2021 6:02 a.m. EST

— The US-Mexico border is a pressing challenge for the Biden administration as it tries to reverse former President Donald Trump's hardline policies and address the growing number of arrests along the southern border. But while there's been an increase in the number of people crossing, the situation hasn't yet amounted to crisis levels.

US Customs and Border Protection has attributed the uptick in arrests in part to instability in home countries, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and perceptions of instant shifts in US immigration policies.

The pandemic has taken a dramatic toll on Latin America, where Covid-19 cases and deaths have soared and economies once projected to grow have been decimated. The region was also hit with two devastating hurricanes. The decline in economic growth in 2020, according to the Congressional Research Service, is expected to worsen income inequality and poverty in the region.

"The biggest reason people leave and come to the United States is the situations happening at their home countries," said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council.

This week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki warned those considering coming to the US that they'll largely be turned away.

"Now is not the time to come," Psaki said, citing the pandemic and ongoing efforts to put a comprehensive process in place. "The vast majority of people will be turned away. Asylum processes at the border will not occur immediately, will take time to implement."

Here's what to know about the situation at the US-Mexico border:

Is there a surge on the US southern border?

Not quite. There is an increase, but assessing the scope of it is difficult because of the high recidivism rate, according to border experts.

Individuals encountered illegally crossing the US-Mexico border can be swiftly expelled from the United States with little consequence under a public health order put in place last March by the Trump administration. That's led to single adults trying to cross multiple times.

"What we're seeing right now is that the Title 42 expulsions continue to be the largest driver of increased numbers at the border," Reichlin-Melnick said, referring to the law that allows for the quick removal of migrants.

In January, there was an average of about 3,000 arrests per day along the southern border, according to CBP.

A Homeland Security official cautioned Wednesday that January numbers may overstate the number of migrants arriving at the border because the current rate of recidivism -- the number of people arrested for crossing more than once -- is very high.

The US Border Patrol estimates that between March 20, 2020, and February 4, 2021, 38% of all encounters were people who had been arrested more than once for crossing.

Who's crossing the border?

The majority of border crossers since October are single adults, many of whom are from Mexico. In January, the US Border Patrol arrested more than 75,000 migrants on the southern border, up from around 71,000 in December, according to the latest data. Of those, single adults made up around 62,000 arrests.

But the increase from month to month is notable given that there's usually a dip between December and January due to the holidays, according to a former Homeland Security official. It's particularly concerning among families and unaccompanied migrant children.

Border Patrol arrests of families and unaccompanied migrant children at the border, which is always a concern given the vulnerability of the two groups, went up from around 9,300 in December to nearly 13,000 in January. More than half were from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras.

How does this compare with recent years?

It's difficult to compare today's arrests with those of recent years because of the drastically different circumstances, as a result of the pandemic.

Last March, as the coronavirus gripped the Western Hemisphere and travel restrictions began to go into effect, apprehensions along the southern border began to decline and then picked back up again in June.

"We can't do apples-to-apples comparisons," said Andrew Selee, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. "For two reasons: une is because we don't know the recidivism rate but also because Title 42 creates a different set of incentives."

Selee explained that single adults might be more willing to keep attempting to cross because they'll just be kicked back to Mexico if they're arrested because of the public health order.

"It feels like the 1990s, when people tried to cross multiple times and there were really no consequences for multiple crossings," Selee said.

What's been the policy at the border?

The Trump administration put a series of policies in place that tightened the US asylum system and made it exceedingly difficult for migrants to claim asylum at the border.

Among those policies was one informally known as "remain in Mexico." That policy, which has been in effect for two years, forced thousands of non-Mexican migrants to wait in Mexico until their US immigration court dates. In many cases, that's meant waiting months, if not years, in deplorable conditions and under the threat of extortion, sexual assault and kidnapping.

During the pandemic, though, the previous administration largely came to rely on a public health order that allowed border officials to swiftly expel migrants arrested on the southern border back to Mexico or their home countries. That policy remains in effect.

President Joe Biden has moved to draw down the "remain in Mexico" policy by stopping the enrollment of new migrants. His administration will also begin processing individuals who were subject to the policy into the United States later this month.

What has Biden done so far to change the situation at the border?

Administration officials have repeatedly warned that changes in border policies will take time to implement. While reviews of those policies are ongoing, the situation along the border remains largely the same.

"We're being very clear that given the current environment and lack of processing capacity between ports of entry that travel restrictions will continue for some time," an administration official said.

Along with revisiting the "remain in Mexico" program, Biden's signed executive orders also called for the end of wall construction and a commitment to invest in Latin America to address the root causes of migration.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently announced that the administration has suspended and begun the process of terminating Trump-era agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that limited the ability of some migrants to seek asylum in the US.

Misinformation undercuts the administration's message

In recent weeks, migrants waiting in various northern Mexican cities have been told to travel to other locations along the border under the false pretense that they'll be let into the US through a port of entry there, immigration attorneys told CNN.

Other messages, shared via the popular messaging app WhatsApp, have falsely told migrants who fall under the "remain in Mexico" policy that they'll be allowed to enter the US on a certain date and directed them to present themselves to border officials on that date.

Misinformation is spreading along the US-Mexico border through smugglers or word of mouth, among migrants desperate for answers from the Biden administration.

It's commonplace for smugglers to lie to migrants to sell their services, but years of Trump policies that left thousands waiting on the southern border have resulted in networks operating only miles from the United States, according to Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at George Mason University who studies migrant smuggling networks.

It's unclear whether misinformation is driving an uptick in border apprehensions, but in the interim, the rumors and misinformation are fueling frustration and confusion in border communities, threatening to undermine the administration's plans for the border.

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