On Texas border, a new migrant influx under Biden
Published: Mar 17, 2021 06:53 PM
In a gusty, open-air bus depot in Brownsville, Texas, Febe Carillo-Ramos speaks freely after a 161-kilometer journey from her home in Guatemala: For the first time in 20 days on the road, she can now move without worry.

With her 3-year-old son Wuermer on her lap, she shows a document given to her the day before by the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) that allows them to travel to Houston where her husband is, to settle and work, without the immediate threat of deportation.

Migrants mostly from Central America wait in line to cross the border at the Gateway International Bridge from Matamoros, Mexico to Brownsville, Texas, the US on Monday. Photo: AFP

Migrants mostly from Central America wait in line to cross the border at the Gateway International Bridge from Matamoros, Mexico to Brownsville, Texas, the US on Monday. Photo: AFP

"They told me that with these papers I can go anywhere," the 29-year-old says.

It's the new normal for migrant families under President Joe Biden, after the harsh Donald Trump era "zero tolerance" policy which dashed the dreams of hundreds of thousands hoping to escape endemic poverty and violence in Central America.

Biden's pledge of a more humane approach has helped ignite a new rush to the border - and is threatening to become a huge political liability at home.

Republicans are accusing him of opening the country's doors to illegal border-crossers and sparking a "crisis" on the US-Mexico frontier, marked in Texas by the meandering Rio Grande.

They say Biden's easier approach toward immigrants will exacerbate COVID-19 and let "terrorists" in, as House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy claimed on Monday.

'Catch and release' 

In Brownsville, a loosely packed city of 180,000 located about 32 kilometers west of where the Rio Grande ambles into the Gulf of Mexico, there is no sense of a crisis.

Under the cover of darkness migrants like Carillo-Ramos cross the river from Mexico with their children and then surrender themselves to Border Patrol.

They believe that if they step onto US soil, Biden will let them stay.

And while CBP said it sent back many of the 100,000 migrants caught trying to enter in February - most of them single adults - hers is a good bet. 

For families, mainly mothers with small children, the policy in the Brownsville area is "catch and release."

And every day dozens like her legally board buses to wherever they want to go in the US.

Sharp turnaround 

Also guaranteed to stay are unaccompanied minors.

According to social workers in Matamoros, the Mexican city opposite Brownsville, the kids are brought by parents or relatives to the border and sent across alone, some as young as six.

Once across, they too are processed by CBP, and then handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which helps them connect with family contacts inside the US. But their numbers are overwhelming the system. In February the CBP picked up 9,457 unaccompanied minors along the frontier. According to media reports, currently, more than 12,000 are in government hands awaiting resettlement. That is a sharp turn from Trump's approach.

Aiming to deter migrants, his administration separated families, keeping the children in the US for resettlement while shipping the parents back over the border, with no contact.

Unaccompanied children were detained for months, with some lost in the system.

Now, in Brownsville, it's a smooth process that local activists say is more humane.

Around 150 migrants who landed as families pass through every day. After registering with CBP, they get dropped off at the bus station or the airport.

Shared Horrors 

The migrants all have relatives somewhere across the US - a husband in Virginia, an uncle in Indiana, or cousins much closer in Houston.

Several that AFP spoke to said that Biden's more open policy encouraged their journey.

One said her husband, already inside the US, said it would be easier and safer under Biden. 

But all also say they are fleeing the lack of jobs and money, and the constant threat of violence - "delinquents and narco-traffickers who nobody messes with," said Carillo-Ramos.

Sam Bishop, who works with Global Response Management, which provides medical support for migrants in Matamoros, said they sound like the refugees fleeing violence that he dealt with as a US military medic in the Middle East.

"Many of the people there in Syria, who are recognized refugees fleeing violence by ISIS, have stories that would be interchangeable with the stories of people that we see here," he said.

Arriving with hope 

Defending the government's policy, Biden pointed to earlier surges, including in 2019.

He spoke hours after his Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas admitted what previous administrations have all found: "The situation at the southwest border is difficult."

Mayorkas blamed Trump's harsh and haphazard stance approach to the current problems.

"We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years," he said. 

And while he claimed that most migrants from Central America were being expelled, he admitted that in areas like Brownsville, the families were being let through - acknowledging that Mexico doesn't want to take them back.
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