Francis Wilkinson

Could Migrant Caravans Return Under Biden?

First came the hurricanes. Next come the caravans.

November brought destruction to a wide swath of Central America as Hurricanes Eta and Iota slammed the region. So far Eta alone has caused $5 billion worth of damage and affected 3 million people in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

The northern triangle of Central America has suffered for years from bad politics, bad crime, bad economies, and, periodically, bad weather. Those factors have combined to propel migrants north through Mexico toward the southern US border. In recent years, they have been mostly young families or unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the US, according to the Migration Policy Institute, “rather than young, male adults in search of work — as had been the pattern dating back to the early 1970s.”

Because the journey itself is made harrowing by the same destabilizing forces that prompt migrants to leave home in the first place, caravans, offering relative safety in numbers, have become a logistical last resort.

According to a Pentagon spokesman, the US spent $939 million on deployments to the southern border from October 2017 through September 2020. In addition, the US has awarded contracts totaling at least $10 billion to firms building sections of wall and related infrastructure along the border. President Donald Trump’s wall, notes a report from ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, “costs about five times more per mile than fencing built under the Bush and Obama administrations.”

The wall — a primitive technology that is often defeated by another primitive technology, the ladder — symbolizes the pathology that drives Trump administration immigration policy. Billions spent on troops and barriers have had no impact on the drivers of regional migration. In October, border agents apprehended more than 2,000 migrants daily, some 500 more than in October 2019.

If the wall has limited utility, brutality has proved more effective. Thousands of children were turned away from the border this year without being given a chance to make a case for asylum. The administration has continued to sidestep humanitarian exigencies and tighten access to the US Remarkably, Trump finalized a new rule last week putting legal asylum even further out of reach of those seeking refuge.

President-elect Joe Biden, aided by a pro-immigrant evolution of public opinion, has vowed to dismantle virtually all of Trump’s border policies and “surge” humanitarian and other resources to the border. As vice president, Biden helped engineer a $750 million aid package to help El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras increase security and stem migration. The amount seems quaint in light of Trump’s border binge. (Trump suspended the aid in 2019.) In the wake of destruction from recent hurricanes, it looks punier still.

Biden has promised to address the “root causes” of migration and “immediately convene regional partners to institute a comprehensive, multinational plan to address the challenges.” If the problems driving migration are interconnected, so are the likely solutions. But the unraveling of Trump policies will take time, and may be less than comprehensive. Trump issued more than 400 executive actions on immigration. In lieu of Republican support, Biden will have to respond in kind.

Biden will enter office amid multiple crises. The border is one. As The Washington Post reported this month, his administration will have to deal with a huge immigration court backlog, a demoralized workforce and “an enforcement system cracking under the strains of the coronavirus pandemic.” And that doesn’t include the specter of caravans winding their way north, packed with migrants hopeful that a new US president will improve their odds for a better life.

Ultimately, change at the White House will matter little without improvements in Central America and an overhaul of temporary work visas and other measures in the US to help relieve regional pressure. Desperate people do desperate things. Managing that desperation, not relieving it, has been US policy for decades.

Biden’s border won’t be as brutal (or as lawless) as Trump’s. But for most of the tired, poor, and tempest-tossed of Central America, it’s unlikely to be a gateway to relief anytime soon.