Biden inherits border chaos from Trump but begets uncertainty and false hope

The morning sunlight streamed undisturbed over the concrete expanse known as El Chaparral, one of the busiest border crossings in the world, days before the inauguration of President Biden.

Taxi drivers chatted idly. A few people hovered around the silent turnstiles that marked the official entry from northern Mexico into Southern California — and the possible pathway to a long-awaited exit from the Trump era.

Suddenly a gate opened, and Gabi and her husband rushed over to once again extend a temporary residency visa from the Mexican government. They and their three kids fled El Salvador in 2019 after her nephew was murdered for refusing to join a gang. Asking for asylum in the U.S., the family instead ended up sleeping on the Tijuana streets after U.S. officials forced them back over the border under a Trump policy known as “Remain in Mexico.”

Their last court hearing was set for March 2020, when the Trump administration indefinitely closed the border, citing COVID-19. Now it’s set for March 2021.

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“I was very afraid of Trump,” Gabi said, who asked to use her first name only, for safety. “That’s why I waited, seeking asylum here, because I wanted to do it legally.

“With Biden I think we have a light in this darkness,” Gabi went on. “We hope he’ll let us fight for asylum inside, in a safe place for my children. … I want to stop running.”

The quiet at Chaparral belied the chaos that former President Trump’s policies have wrought across the roughly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border over the past four years — and an already dangerous uncertainty about Biden’s plans to deal with it.

California’s border with Mexico is, in many ways, where Trump transformed into policy the jingoistic bluster of his 2016 campaign announcement, in which he condemned migrants as rapists and drug dealers.

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Here, Trump deployed Border Patrol agents and U.S. military troops ahead of the 2018 midterms to prevent “an invasion” of Central American families. Here, and in scattered spots along the border, an estimated 5,000 families were torn apart, and at El Chaparral, Trump’s administration launched “Remain in Mexico,” ultimately forcing 70,000 asylum seekers to wait for U.S. court dates in some of the world’s most dangerous cities.

Yet leading up to Inauguration Day, few along the border, from asylum seekers to U.S. agents, had answers for how Biden will confront the most immediate challenge left to him by Trump: How to deal with the estimated 30,000 migrants waiting in limbo, as well as thousands more already heading north, amid a pandemic that Trump used as pretext to close the border.

Biden has yet to answer himself.

Rarely has a presidential transition represented such a sharp contrast in approaches to immigration and border security. And rarely has the timing been more urgent, said Savitri Arvey, a migration researcher.

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“I am just deeply worried that every single day the Biden administration waits to give clear indications of what’s going to happen at the border after Jan. 20, they put more people in danger,” she said.

On his first day in office, Biden unveiled a comprehensive immigration reform proposal offering an eight-year path to citizenship for some 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally as well as green cards to upwards of a million DACA recipients, Temporary Protected Status holders, and farmworkers already in the United States.

He also issued executive orders to rescind Trump’s travel ban on majority-Muslim and African countries; terminate the “national emergency” Trump declared at the border; and pause border wall construction. But Biden has already begun walking back other pledges for first-day action, such as ending “Remain in Mexico.”

On Wednesday night, Biden’s Department of Homeland Security announced it wouldn’t put anyone else into “Remain in Mexico,” dubbed the Migrant Protection Protocols by the Trump administration. But the department didn’t say what it would do with the thousands already in it.

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“Current COVID-19 non-essential travel restrictions, both at the border and in the region, remain in place at this time,” a statement from the department said. “All current MPP participants should remain where they are, pending further official information from government officials.”

Then came the kicker: “Please note: Individuals outside of the United States will not be eligible for legal status under the bill that President Biden sent to Congress today.”

In recent days, some 8,000 migrants traveling in caravans toward the U.S. border have been confronted by military force in Central America and Mexico. Outgoing Trump officials blamed Biden’s promises, which they predict he can’t fulfill, and prophesied worse to come.

“Biden is in enormous political peril,” Stephen Miller, the primary architect of Trump’s restrictionist immigration policies, told the Times on Tuesday, his last in the White House.

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Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s pick to lead DHS, said Tuesday in his confirmation hearing that reversing Trump’s decimation of the legal immigration system “cannot be accomplished with just the flick of a switch and turned on in Day One.”

But thousands, like Gabi, are already at the border, or on their way. And here, hope can be dangerous.

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At Madre Asunta, a Catholic shelter in the hills of Tijuana, some 50 mothers and their children have spent months in this policy purgatory. One day last week, they sat for the first day of class at the shelter since the coronavirus outbreak.

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In 2019, when Trump officials apprehended more than 850,000 migrants at the southwest border, the courtyard was crowded with laundry lines, sleeping pads and well over 100 women and kids. Now it was empty, another sign of the Trump administration’s success in shutting down immigration, an ambition held long before the pandemic.

Madre Asunta’s maximum stay is supposed to be two weeks, but families typically stay for months. They have nowhere else to go. In Tijuana, jobs and public services are scarce, rent is high, discrimination against migrants is widespread — and violence, especially against women, is rampant.

All along the border, migrants are trapped. Human Rights First has documented at least 1,134 public reports of murder, torture, rape and kidnapping against asylum seekers returned to Mexico under Trump’s policies. Amid a record backlog of nearly 1.3 million immigration cases that’s ballooned under Trump and coronavirus closures, the average wait for a decision has reached almost 2½ years.

The women waiting at Madre Asunta now talk about using smugglers to cross illegally, said Salome Limas, a sister and social worker at the shelter. Back home in Central America, some said, many more were preparing to come, in the wake of devastating hurricanes, poverty worsened by COVID-19, and the lure of a new administration.

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Limas expects that Biden will extend a more compassionate reception, but not an open invitation.

“The border will stay closed,” Limas said. “The way of seeing the migrants will definitely change — not as enemies, but as people looking for safety in their lives.”

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Mere yards from the border, at Tijuana’s Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter, Enrique Geovanny Lopez Puac, his wife, two sons and baby daughter have been living in a tent close to the bathrooms. He said they fled north after gang members in Guatemala tried to kidnap his youngest son.

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In March, Lopez Puac and his sons crossed the Rio Grande from Reynosa into McAllen, Texas, to turn themselves in to the Border Patrol and claim asylum — at exactly the wrong time. Lopez Puac said they were taken into custody to a facility he called “Donald Trump,” thinking it was named after the president. It was a Customs and Border Protection holding area in Donna, Texas.

While he was in custody, he said, an official on the phone asked him about his asylum claim and told him he had an appointment in court in 14 days. On March 20, the Trump administration invoked Title 42, a public health authority, under a controversial order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, effectively closing the border.

CDC officials later said that Miller and Vice President Mike Pence pushed the move for political reasons, and that it did little to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Yet under the order, since March, the Trump administration expelled hundreds of thousands of migrants like Lopez Puac, including many unaccompanied children and families, without due process or plausible access to asylum.

Ironically, the policy appears to encourage repeat crossers. Now, the vast majority crossing are single adult Mexican males — a demographic profile that more closely resembles the 1980s through the early 2000s, when annual apprehensions, a rough measure of illegal immigration, routinely topped more than a million. Since the end of the Obama administration, before Title 42, asylum-seeking Central American families and unaccompanied minors had consistently made up the majority of apprehensions.

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As for Lopez Puac, CBP officials handed him and his two sons over to Mexican counterparts, without providing them any documentation or returning his identification, he said. The Mexican officials then took the family more than a thousand miles south to Tapachula. His wife met them there with their 4-year-old daughter.

“In Guatemala, there is a lot of extortion — and if you don’t give them the money, they’ll kill you,” said his wife, Elvira.

Both Obama and Trump cajoled Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico in a move to essentially outsource U.S. immigration enforcement. In recent years, Mexico has deported more Central Americans than the U.S.

Biden officials on Wednesday said their legislative proposal includes a $4-billion, four-year interagency plan to the Northern Triangle countries — conditioned on their governments’ ability to reduce the corruption, violence and poverty that causes people like Lopez Puac to flee. It also would restore Obama-era programs and establish new processing centers enabling Central Americans to apply for refugee resettlement or other legal admission to the U.S. from within the region.

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But confoundingly for Lopez Puac, when they arrived in Tapachula, Mexican officials there gave them a transit visa — granting them 14 days to get back north, where they remain.

Trump took more than 400 executive actions on immigration, including a flurry of administrative changes in his last weeks. But Title 42 may have had the farthest reaching impact — and Biden has not yet committed to ending it.

“What people don’t realize is that Title 42 is everything — it’s a complete closure of the border,” said Lee Gelernt of the ACLU, whose suit against the policy now faces the Biden administration. “There’s no question that the Title 42 policy is unlawful. And yet when Biden comes in, he may leave it.”

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On another day last week, in San Diego’s border district of San Ysidro, some 20 miles north of the shelter, three Border Patrol agents stared into the glare where the rust-colored border wall disappeared into the Pacific Ocean — modernized by the second Bush administration and reinforced by Obama’s and Biden’s.

Touring Trump-era border construction with a reporter, the San Diego sector agents said the new sections of 30-foot concrete-and-rebar-filled bollards, sensors, cameras and roads have made their job easier by slowing down smugglers and illegal crossers but enabling them to respond faster.

“There’s no such thing as a bad wall,” said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jeff Stephenson. “But is it miles? Or is it what’s the most important thing operationally?”

At the same time, the agents said the beefed-up barrier and Title 42 were combining to push migrants to cross in more remote and dangerous mountain and desert areas of San Diego County, and over the ocean. For years, the San Diego sector and Homeland Security Air and Marine Operations, or AMO, have seen everything from lone swimmers to jet skis and yachts and dangerously overloaded, leaky pangas employed in attempts to smuggle migrants or drugs across international waters.

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But in recent months, Border Patrol agents and AMO say that attempted migrant crossings on the ocean off the coast of California, some reaching as far north as Los Angeles, have reached record highs.

“I would say the past year has been the busiest for our region that I can remember,” said Kris Goland, a marine supervisory agent.

Increasingly, cartels are diversifying their enterprises. Under Title 42, coyotes give migrants as many tries as they need, law enforcement officials say — especially if they’re paying anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 for the more complex water crossing.

Asked where the pangas are launching in Mexico, Border Patrol Agent Gary Richards, who specializes in intelligence, said that according to their sources, it was three areas: tourist havens Rosarito and Ensenada, and Popotla, a small fishing village nearby.

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Biden inherits border chaos from Trump

President-elect Joe Biden vowed “not another foot” of border wall will be built under his administration. But Trump leaves Biden nearly 300 miles of border barrier in some stage of construction, according to Customs and Border Protection.

In Popotla, a woman named Sarita with cropped hair and heavy eyeliner fried and tossed as she spoke over her grill and loud music playing at the neighboring seafood stands.

Switching between Spanish and English, Sarita, who is a Native American and went to school in Arizona, recounted a recent cross-border trip to Walmart, where a woman barked at her, “Go back to your country.”

“I told her: ‘I didn’t cross the border; the border crossed me,’ ” Sarita said.

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Along with its fresh seafood, Popotla had a reputation as a launching point for smugglers in the past. But Sarita insisted that the village, while struggling under COVID-19 border restrictions, had not turned back to that business.

“That happens other places,” she said. “Not here.”

The border is still shifting, unstable, contested. Trump won the White House boasting he’d build “a big, beautiful wall” spanning all 2,000 miles and make Mexico pay for it. Neither has happened — but the project is still underway.

Outside the U.S. border town of Calexico, more than 120 miles east of Tijuana, five days before Trump left office, a construction worker in a neon safety vest and hard hat approached Border Patrol agents standing in the shadow of a new section of wall.

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“There’s rumors they’re going to shut everything down, but they’re just rumors,” said the worker, Bradley Jennings. All the material hauled out to the wall site would have to be removed, he said. “We’ll work until the last minute.”

Biden has vowed that “not another foot” of border wall will be built under his administration, and on Wednesday, he issued an executive order to freeze construction.

But it won’t be easy — Trump left Biden 211 miles of border barrier under construction, according to Customs and Border Protection. Across the border, a Times reporter saw backhoes and dump trucks racing to finish Trump’s work.

In the end, Trump replaced hundreds of miles of existing fencing and added to the total only about 50 miles that weren’t there when he entered the White House. The majority of the 654 miles of border wall pre-dating Trump was built under Obama.

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Just last Friday, Trump extended the national emergency for another year. On Wednesday, Biden ended it.

Biden also said he’d stop government lawsuits against private border landowners and invest in “smart border” infrastructure instead, in particular to speed processing at ports of entry. But Biden officials have not yet said exactly what they’ll do with border construction projects currently underway, save for reviewing their legality. Cancelling contracts and scrapping material could cost the government up to $700 million, according to an Army Corps of Engineers estimate — but halting construction on Day One could also save $2.6 billion.

Gary P. Nabhan, a conservation biologist at the University of Arizona, has reported to the federal government what he says is corruption in the wall construction, potentially benefiting cartels on the other side. But he’s also afraid what could happen if Biden immediately halts construction.

“The contractors think they’ve above the law,” he said. “Do you think that just because of an administration change, and if the contracts get cancelled, that they’re going to start doing things legally instantly?”

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At the Calexico port of entry, plainclothes agents from the Border Patrol’s intelligence unit interviewed a 20-year-old Mexican man from Guerrero who’d been put in the back of a transport van, hands zip-tied behind his back. Agents took him into custody at an interior checkpoint far off the border, near El Centro. They’d processed him there and would soon take him back to Mexico under Title 42.

As soon as this week, Biden’s administration may have to decide whether to continue a government appeal by the Trump administration that challenges a federal judge’s ruling that Title 42 can’t be applied to unaccompanied children. If the Biden administration continues to implement Title 42, they’ll also be doing so with Border Patrol agents who have widely different understandings of how to carry it out.

In San Diego, Stephenson, the supervisory agent, said they’d been instructed not to proactively ask migrants about their potential fears of being returned, and that the migrants have to specifically volunteer that they fear torture, a much higher legal bar.

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But in Calexico, Supervisory Border Patrol Agent D. Kim said, “There’s this big misconception that because of Title 42, you can’t claim asylum. … If somebody says, ‘They’re going to hurt me, kill me,’ really what they’re saying is: ‘I have credible fear,’ and of course we’re going to review it.”

Trump has given Border Patrol unprecedented power over the fate of migrant children and asylum seekers amid record vacancies and turnover at an increasingly politicized DHS.

Biden has resisted calls from his party’s progressive wings to disband Immigration and Customs Enforcement or dismantle DHS. Officials said he’d direct funding instead toward safety and professionalism training for Border Patrol agents and the department’s internal investigative wing.

After Wednesday, Trump’s outspoken political appointees will be gone and the 99% of CBP and Border Patrol employees who are career public servants will remain to work under a new administration with near opposite priorities.

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“It’s like the campaign trail,” said Border Patrol spokesman Macario Mora. “They make a lot of promises, but until they actually enact the policies, we won’t know.”