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Legal border crossings are overwhelming U.S. agencies, and cartels are taking advantage

You’ve probably seen countless headlines about the unprecedented numbers of migrants arriving at our Southern border in the last year. We saw a record high in fiscal year 2023: 2.5 million encounters of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

But, Ariel Ruiz Soto says just who is arriving there — and how they’re coming here — has also changed significantly. And it has a lot to do with the Biden administration’s shifting policies. 

Soto is a senior policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute and, in a new report, he and his fellow researchers found that after the end of the controversial immigration policy known as Title 42, more migrants than ever before who are reaching the U.S. are now coming to ports of entry — often with appointments via the CBP One app or through a parole program. 

In fact, Ruiz Soto told The Show, it’s this increase in people coming to ports of entry — attempting to come here legally — that’s caused these record numbers we’re seeing. 

The Show spoke with him more about it — beginning with where many migrants are now coming from. 

ARIEL RUIZ SOTO: What has been really fascinating to see in the last few years of the U.S-Mexico border is how important has been the change about the nationalities of migrants arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border. We’ve seen that after the pandemic there has been a hemispheric migration flow coming from places as far as Venezuela, but also Ecuador and others outside of the hemisphere — including India, Turkey and more recently, China.

And because these flows are also coming from farther away, they also require additional assistance when they come to the U.S.-Mexico border, which presents significant challenges for the U.S. Border Patrol. One of them is language, but more primarily, at least in the processing stage of their cases, is understanding how to provide accommodations with them for detention space, shelter and/or release them in the United States, given that they cannot be detained for a significant amount of time.

GILGER: OK, so your report talks about those shifts to begin with but also documents how much of this is really policy driven. We saw the end of Title 42 and the Biden administration implementing an array of policies that are sort of “carrot and stick” approach, they’re trying to take, as you call it. So describe that shift for us, first of all. The major changes in policy we saw very recently.

RUIZ SOTO: Sure. So leading to the end of Title 42, the Biden administration took a different stance in how it sees managing not just irregular migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, but also opening new pathways for immigration. A key component of sustaining title 42 was to implement what became known as the Circumvent of Lawful Pathways rule.

That means that migrants who arrived today at the U.S.-Mexico border have to prove that they either applied for asylum in another country and didn’t receive it, or that they are eligible for another exemption to receive asylum in the United States. That means that most people who enter or seek to enter in the States irregularly will not directly qualify for asylum in the beginning process. In practice, this plays differently because of the lack of resources. USCIS officers, for example, do not have enough capacity to interview every migrant that comes to the U.S.-Mexico border right away, and therefore means that they have to be detained for a longer time.

But quickly here, it’s important to think, too, as well as how migration to ports of entry has changed under CBP One application, which is a scheduling tool that the Border Patrol uses … to try to have migrants arrive at ports of entry with their information already previously included so they can then be screened and, if deemed eligible, be allowed into the country through the port and then proceed with a usually 2-year parole document that allows them to work or to apply for work. And then that is a very different process than what happens within ports of entry. So the Biden administration, really what they did is they began to separate how the U.S. law and U.S. agencies treat migrants who come between ports of entry versus those who come at ports of entry.

GILGER: Right. So a big piece of this massive increase we hear so much about at the southern border, people arriving at the border are people who are coming to those ports of entry and hoping to qualify for these parole programs. So they’re coming legally.

RUIZ SOTO: They approach the border with a CBP One employment, and then they’re inspected and enter legally into the United States if they are screened and deemed appropriate to do so. We’ve seen, for example in 2023 fiscal year, almost 430,000 migrants who approached the U.S.-Mexico border to try to receive, through these appointments, an opportunity to enter again states.

Having these migrants enter is not, again, not just an important benefit for migrants because they get to enter legally and then have parole to then be able to work more quickly into the United States, but also that it gives a expected flow of how migrants are entering to border communities. And many more of those communities are able to think in advance, and nonprofit organizations are able to help with their services. And so it’s a win-win scenario when we can think about how migrants can arrive into the United States using lawful pathways.

GILGER: Right. But there are issues with that, right? And it seems like it’s almost just in terms of staffing, of capacity.

RUIZ SOTO: Yes. In the end, perhaps what is most needed in our outdated immigration enforcement system at the border is increasing significantly the volume of capacity across all agencies. Most of the time, what we see in the media is focused on Border Patrol because they are the first agency that encounters migrants and rescues migrants from the river or the desert.

But USCIS here plays a significant role in how migration actually happens at the border. One of the biggest things that migrants do differently today than before is that migrants turn themselves in. Many of the migrants turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents and then begin to seek asylum in the United States.

But to do so, they have to be interviewed by USCIS. If there’s not enough USCIS officers to interview them, then many more have to be detained for a longer period of time. And then, of course, Immigration and Customs Enforcement then has to figure out how to remove if they can remove migrants to their country, if they do not pass those screenings. But the bottom line is, it’s not just Border Patrol — it’s USCIS and it’s ICE as well. They have to be well staffed and resourced.

GILGER: Yeah. Yeah. So that is very different than the narrative that the border is open and being flooded, right? But the other thing that you’ve pointed out here in this report in terms of major shifts happening in migration patterns is a big increase in a continuing increase in families coming and specifically coming, it sounds like, to Arizona. Can you tell us why?

RUIZ SOTO: Right. So it's been an important phenomenon at the border that more families across all sectors have been increasingly arriving to U.S.-Mexico border. But in the case of Arizona, it stands out because we’ve seen a significant increase in Mexican families, not just families in general, Mexican families that are coming to the Tucson sector. But let me be very clear about this. Even when families come into the United States, they’re not necessarily able to stay in the United States. Many of them, in fact, most of them who come between ports of entry, if they’re Mexican, will have to go through removal process and will have to wait until the court hearing to be able to determine whether they can stay or not.

GILGER: There also seems to be a role that the cartels are playing here, in terms of routing people to where it sounds like they know border officials are the most overwhelmed.

RUIZ SOTO: Yes. And that’s one of the perhaps the biggest innovations in how smuggling networks have worked in the last several years. They have been so detailed in understanding how capacity limitations across on the U.S. side of the border have changed and therefore target and take advantage of sectors that tend to be more isolated or they tend to have lower staffing compared to other sectors in the past.

So for example, Arizona sectors have tended to be the smaller wall sectors across the border and have tended to be some of the most isolated in certain parts where migrants are crossing.

In this case, smugglers know that if they can increase the flow of migrants arriving at a particular port in Arizona, that that port is going to then be overwhelmed, and that more of those migrants are either going to be detained for a longer time and removed, or many of those migrants are then have to be processed and released with a notice to appear in immigration court perhaps years down the line.

GILGER: All right. Ariel Ruiz Soto joining us, senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. Ariel, thank you so much for coming on. I appreciate you taking the time and explaining this to us.

RUIZ SOTO: Thank you.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.