The real reason migrants come in droves: they believe they can stay

For decades, free young men, mostly from Mexico and later Central America, did their best to slip past U.S. border agents to reach Los Angeles, Atlanta and other places hungry for work.

Today, people from all over the world cross the southern border, most of them equally eager for work. But instead of trying to evade US authorities, the vast majority of migrants ask border agents, sometimes waiting for hours or days in makeshift camps, to surrender.

Being shoved into a US Border Patrol vehicle and taken to a processing facility is hardly a deterrent. In fact, it’s a key step toward being able to apply for asylum—now the safest way for migrants to stay in the United States, even if a few will eventually win their cases.

We live in an era of mass migration — fueled by conflict, climate change, poverty and political repression, and fueled by the proliferation of TikTok and YouTube videos depicting migrants’ journeys to the United States. About six million Venezuelans have left their troubled country, the largest population displacement in modern Latin American history. Migrants from Africa, Asia and South America mortgage their family land, sell their cars or borrow money from loan sharks to embark on long, often treacherous journeys to reach the United States.

In December alone, more than 300,000 people crossed the southern border, which is a record number.

It’s not just because they believe they’ll be able to get over the 2,000 mile southern border. They are also confident that they will be able to stay when they arrive in the United States.

Forever.

And for the most part, they’re not wrong.

The United States is trying to run an immigration system with some of the judges, asylum officers, interpreters and other staff it needs to handle the hundreds of thousands of migrants who cross the border and pour into cities across the country each year. That dysfunction made it impossible for the nation to expeditiously decide who can stay in the country and who should be sent back to their homeland.

“I don’t know anyone who’s been deported,” Carolina Ortiz, a migrant from Colombia, said in an interview in late December at a camp outside Jacumba Hot Springs, about 60 miles southeast of San Diego and a stone’s throw from the hulking rust-colored barrier that separates the United States from Mexico. .

For most migrants, the United States is still a land of opportunity. Many come looking for work and will do whatever it takes to do it, even if it means filing a weak asylum claim, several lawyers say.

To qualify for asylum, applicants must convince a judge that returning to their home country would result in injury or death based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Ms. Ortiz, 40, said she intended to apply for asylum because of the violence in Colombia. Her chances of winning are slim, because violence alone usually doesn’t meet the standards for prosecution. Despite this, she will be protected from deportation while her application is pending and will be eligible for a work permit.

The underfunded immigration courts handling the claims are burdened with an ever-increasing caseload, so claims drag on for years while migrants build lives in the United States.

Ms. Ortiz, a nurse, said she borrowed “millions” in Colombian pesos (several thousand dollars) to pay the smugglers who brought her to the doorstep of the United States, a gap in the wall championed by former President Donald J. Trump. She waited two days in the cold, desert winds whipping through her tent for the agents to come and take her away.

When agents showed up, they transported Ms. Ortiz to a facility where she was given papers saying she entered the country illegally, was placed in deportation proceedings and must appear before an immigration judge.

Judgment day was February 19, 2026.

Then she was released. In Ms. Ortiz’s opinion, everything went according to plan. “I wanted to do everything the right way,” she said, after arriving in Colorado a few days later. She was assigned an “alien” number that is used to track immigration cases.

Most asylum applications are ultimately rejected. But even when that happens, years later, applicants are unlikely to be deported. With millions of people in the country illegally, US deportation officials prioritize arresting and deporting people who have committed serious crimes and pose a threat to public safety.

Nearly 2.5 million people crossed the southern border in fiscal year 2023, more than live in most American cities. That has made the border an increasingly contentious issue for mayors and governors grappling with a large influx of migrants, as well as Republican leaders seeking to pin the blame on President Biden as he campaigns for re-election.

Mike Johnson, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, insisted that nothing should be more important to the United States than securing the border. “We have to insist — we have to insist — that the border is a top priority,” Mr. Johnson told reporters earlier this month after meeting with President Biden and other congressional leaders.

The president has signaled a willingness to agree to most of the Republicans’ demands, although prospects for a deal dimmed last week after Mr Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, voiced his opposition to the terms.

But some advocates of stricter enforcement say pushing the border isn’t enough.

“We need more boots on the ground. We need more border infrastructure,” said Michael Neifach, a border security expert who served as chief legal adviser to Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the George W. Bush administration.

“But you can’t just fix this,” he said. “We have to understand that the border is not the end.

The US immigration system has not been overhauled in nearly 40 years. And it’s been a decade since Republicans and Democrats in Congress last engaged in serious negotiations to try to change the system from top to bottom.

Instead, stoking concerns about immigration has become a vital part of the political agenda for Mr. Trump and many Republican leaders. They call for increased enforcement at the border, but say little about the rest of the ossified, broken immigration system.

“Politicians want to fund Border Patrol agents, fences and other visible aspects of border enforcement,” said Doris Meissner, director of the U.S. immigration policy program at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

“But until resources are increased for other immigration functions, the border problem cannot be solved,” said Ms. Meissner, the former head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Over the past 13 years, Congress has significantly increased funding for Customs and Border Protection, to $21.7 billion in fiscal 2023 from $8 billion in 2006.

But the less visible components of the immigration system have not had commensurate investment. And with the asylum process now the de facto system for so many people entering the United States illegally, the lack of asylum officers, immigration judges and deportation officers has far-reaching consequences.

Republicans in Congress have held off approving more aid to Ukraine and Israel until Democrats agree on more funding for the border. As part of a $110 billion aid request to Congress, the Biden administration is seeking $14 billion to add more agents along the border and more people to process and decide asylum applications. But the fate of the negotiations is uncertain, and even if an agreement is reached, experts say additional funds will still be in short supply.

In a functioning system, most asylum-seeking migrants would be interviewed at the border to assess whether they have a credible fear of persecution if forced to return to their home countries. It is intended as the first step in the asylum process, and migrants found to not have a credible claim can be quickly deported.

About 500 such interviews are conducted daily — more than ever. But they represent only a fraction of the migrants arriving — often 5,000 or more. Most people who cross the border never make it past that initial screening. They are released with a court date in the city, often years in the future.

If the migrants tell judges that they lived in dire poverty and came to the United States in search of work, the migrants could be quickly deported. So, migrants seek asylum, knowing that it gives them a chance to stay.

Under US law, asylum seekers can stay in the United States at least until their cases are finalized.

In 2012, there were 300,000 pending asylum cases in the United States. There are so many cases now in New York State alone. In all, more than three million cases languish in immigration courts, a million more than just a year ago.

About 800 immigration judges are on the bench, up from about 520 in 2020. But the increase in the number of judges comes after years of inactivity, during which time the backlog has grown, according to TRAC, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group at Syracuse University. .

Even with multiple judges on the bench, it can take several years to decide an asylum case. The Congressional Research Service he estimated that about 1,000 more judges would be needed to clear the current backlog by fiscal year 2032.

“No matter how hard we work, day by day, the volume just keeps getting bigger,” said Mimi Tsankov, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

When Dana Leigh Marks joined the immigration court in San Francisco in 1987, there were about 800 cases before each judge. By the time she retires in 2021, each judge has about 4,000 cases. Today, that number is around 5,000.

“It will take years to clear the backlog unless something really dramatic is done,” Ms Marks said, adding that the availability of more work visas would reduce the number of asylum applications clogging up the docket.

If a decision is not made within 150 days, which is practically impossible today, asylum seekers are automatically entitled to an employment permit.

Applicants from countries mired in political unrest or ruled by military dictators, such as Eritrea or Myanmar, are likely to be granted asylum. However, requests from many other countries are far less likely to be approved. Last year, only 4 percent of cases were approved in Mexico, 7 percent in Honduras and 29 percent in Venezuela.

Until a few years ago, Katy Chavez, a North Carolina immigration attorney, received several calls a year from people seeking her services to file for asylum. Now he receives several tens a month. Many are migrants who escaped from great economic difficulties.

“They are calling because they want their work permit,” she said. “They don’t even understand what asylum is.”

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