Between Labor Day and Election Day, I produced super-brief weekly border and migration updates on a trial basis. We sent them to WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list, but didn’t advertise them widely because we wanted to evaluate how the trial run went. It went well: the “open rates” for the updates were quite high, and it proved to be a good exercise for me to take an hour summarizing, in as few words as possible, what’s been happening at the border.

So here’s a new feature: a weekly border update.

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

Biden’s plans for the border and migration

After narrowly taking Arizona, President-Elect Joe Biden became the second Democratic Party presidential candidate to win three border states since 1964. While Donald Trump continues to deny the result, Biden has released lists of “agency review teams” for the transition, including a list for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) heavy with former officials and think-tank experts.

Biden’s team has also telegraphed to media some of the actions it might take in the days after January 20 to undo Trump’s hardline border and migration policies. As no laws were passed (other than appropriations) during the Trump administration, nearly everything can be undone through executive action. Changes include:

  • Reinstating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provides work permits and shields from deportation 650,000 undocumented people who were brought to the United States as children. The Obama-era program, which the Supreme Court at least temporarily stopped Trump from ending, can be revived with as little as a presidential memo, and possibly expanded in include more than 400,000 more eligible people who have been unable to apply.
  • Stopping all ongoing border wall construction, which would mean terminating contracts and desisting from eminent-domain property seizures. It is not yet clear whether the Biden administration would dismantle any wall that Trump has built, or whether it would fund remediation in places where wall-building has damaged fragile ecosystems.
  • Ending the Remain in Mexico (“Migrant Protection Protocols” or MPP) program, which has forced about 70,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearings in Mexico. Though Biden has pledged to end MPP, it’s still not clear how quickly that would happen, or when those currently waiting in Mexican border cities will be let into the United States. Still, news of Biden’s victory sparked celebrations in a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, where nearly 1,000 people subject to MPP have been waiting for as much as a year.
  • Withdrawing from “safe third country” agreements committing El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to receiving asylum-seeking citizens from third countries and allowing them to seek protection in their barely existing asylum systems.
  • Probably preserving Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for approximately 300,000 migrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Nepal, and Honduras, many of whom have been in the United States for many years. And most likely offering TPS to many Venezuelans currently in the United States.
  • Creating a task force to help locate hundreds of migrant parents separated from their children at the border in 2017 and 2018. The number of kids whose parents can’t be located has risen to 666.
  • Reinstating the Obama-era Central American Minors program, which allowed some documented parents of children in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to bring those children to the United States, in some cases receiving refugee status.
  • Rescinding the “travel ban” on 13 mostly African or majority Muslim countries.
  • Freezing deportations for 100 days while drafting guidance reducing the scope of whom immigration agents may detain.
  • Increasing the annual refugee admissions cap to 125,000, up from the Trump administration’s 2021 target of 15,000 and from 110,000 in the last year of the Obama administration.

The Biden team has not indicated whether it would alter the March 2020 Center for Disease Control (CDC) order mandating rapid expulsion of nearly all migrants apprehended at the border, including unaccompanied children and asylum seekers. CBS News reported that Biden’s campaign promised to “direct the CDC to review the expulsions policy ‘to ensure that people have the ability to submit their asylum claims while ensuring that we are taking the appropriate COVID-19 safety precautions.’”

While all of this can happen through executive action, the new administration may have to go slow with some of these steps, particularly those that were implemented with new regulations, in order to avoid or overcome likely court challenges.

A hurricane could mean more migration from Central America

The end of Trump’s hard line on immigration has triggered speculation about a wave of undocumented migration, much of it protection-seeking, at the border early in Joe Biden’s term. That wave, however, may come before January 20.

Guatemala and Honduras, already battered by gang violence, climate-related reductions in crop yields, and COVID-19, were hit hard by Hurricane Eta during the week of November 1. Eta was the worst natural disaster to hit Central America since Hurricane Mitch, which killed more than 11,000 people in 1998. Central American migration to the United States increased for years after Mitch, and we can expect something similar from the double blow of COVID and Eta.

“A new caravan is already coming together on social media due to the current situation in the country,” Karen Valladares, director of the Honduran migrant rights group FONAMIH, told Univision. Recent attempted “caravans” have been dispersed by security forces in Mexico and Guatemala; migrants are more likely to arrive by paying smugglers to get them across Mexico.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei said that Guatemala would request that the U.S. government grant TPS to its citizens as a result of the storm, though he held out little hope of Donald Trump assenting.

Other links

  • DHS employees told BuzzFeed that they hope the Biden administration may end years of “chaos” at their department.
  • Vice and BuzzFeed report that women who witnessed or alleged non-consensual gynecological procedures at a Georgia ICE detention center are being deported.
  • The United States has swiftly deported 1,400 unaccompanied minors to Guatemala since March under the CDC order.