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As Biden Takes Office, The U.S. And Mexico Respond To Latest Migrant Caravan

These are the final hours of a presidency defined largely by a desire to punish people who migrate to the United States without permission. The process to turn away from this approach is expected to start shortly after Joe Biden is sworn in. He takes over the country’s immigration system as another caravan heads north from Central America.

As many as 9,000 migrants and asylum seekers traveling in large groups began making their way into Guatemala late last week. Fleeing violence, poverty and the devastation of two hurricanes in their home country last November, most are bound for the United States.

But their path was almost immediately blocked by Guatemalan security forces.

video from the Guardian shows military and police banging batons against large plastic shields as they cleared men, women and children off a highway Monday.

In neighboring Mexico,  authorities praised the Guatemalan government’s forceful response to the migrant caravans, and deployed immigration officials, national guard and military troops to its own southern border.

"We're working this matter out with in coordination with the governments of Central America, and there has also been communication with the United States," President Andrés Manuel López Obrador told reporters  during a press conference Monday, adding that migrants would be attended to "so they don't enter any country by force, so they are attended to and their human rights are respected."

On Tuesday, Mexico’s Immigration Institute touted its success so far, posting photos to social media of 136 Honduran migrants being loaded onto planes and flown back to their home country.

"What we’ve been seeing these last four years is the Mexican government has kind of been a right hand man to the Trump administration in implementing anti-immigration policies and anti-asylum policies," said Sara Ritchie, communications director with the binational migrant aid group Kino Border Initiative based in Nogales.

Ritchie said Mexico’s hardline approach to migration stems in part from pressure the Trump administration has put on Mexican and Central American governments to stop migrants before they can reach the U.S.-border.

But she and others hope that will change under the administration of incoming President Joe Biden. 

"If Mexico has followed suit for what the U.S. government has done for the last four years, I think there's a lot of potential there for Mexico to follow suit for whatever example the Biden administration sets," she said. "So if the Biden administration makes it a priority to, along the U.S.-Mexico border, to create humane and efficient systems to process asylum seekers, they could also call on the Mexican government to do the same."

On Tuesday, migrants and  asylum seekers in Nogales marched to the border ahead of Biden's inauguration, urging the incoming president to follow through with campaign promises to immediately end Trump era policies that have left many waiting a year or more for relief in the United States.

Biden has walked back those promises somewhat since the election, in part because of fears that caravan groups could overwhelm the border before new systems are in place.

Biden's Approach

Migrant caravans were on the minds of Republican senators Tuesday as they questioned Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s nominee for Homeland Security secretary.

"With regards to that caravan that is coming to our border, is your intention to let them come into the country? Will they be stopped? What’s the plan?" Utah Senator Mitt Romney asked.

Mayorkas spoke generally — the U.S. is a country of immigrants, said the son of Cuban parents.

"If people qualify under the law, to remain in the United States, then we will apply the law accordingly. If they do not qualify to remain in the United States, then they won’t," he said.

When migrants surged at the Arizona border under Trump, many families were let into the U.S. while the already backlogged immigration court system took on the task of deciding if they could stay. In late 2018, federal authorities started releasing them by the busload.

Children playing in a north-Phoenix church parking lot were among the first large groups dropped off to aid groups by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Faith leaders and volunteers patched together a network to help migrant families. And the busloads soon got big enough to be received in church cafeterias like this one in Mesa.

By spring, the growing number of mostly Central American families stretched the local volunteer safety net to its max. Groups in metro Phoenix called for better communication from ICE, and federal funding. The mayor of Yuma declared a state of emergency weeks after drop offs started there.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema brought up the 2019 border crisis as she questioned Mayorkas.

"Your prepared remarks describe the Department of Homeland Security as a department of partnerships. I agree," she said.

The Arizona Democrat described the work done by local aid groups as critical: "If you’re confirmed, will you and Arizona DHS leaders work with me, our NGOs and local governments to improve communication and cooperation regarding border security, asylum seekers and immigration, and the flow of trade across the border? MAYORKAS: I would be honored to do so, senator."

Count the National Immigration Law Center as one of the groups that hope to partner with the Biden administration.

"With the caravan, you know this is the time of year normally that people migrate north," said Executive Director Marielena Hincapié.

She said it’s key to understand why Central Americans choose to join caravans that often form to take advantage of mild weather in the fall and spring.

"There needs to be a focus on those root causes. And one of the big shifts that we will see from the Biden administration is actually looking at that," she said.

The new president’s chance to totally reimagine the U.S. immigration system starts today.

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Kendal Blust was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2018 to 2023.