‘There Are Thousands Waiting’: Biden Faced with the Inextricable Immigration Issue

Joe Biden’s first steps on the immigration issue are attracting criticism: the Republicans accuse him of being too lax, the Democratic left accuses him of lacking generosity. Although the new U.S. president steers clear of his predecessor’s racist excesses, there is little development on the Mexican border.

The motion is stealthy, precise and efficient – as if it had been practiced. A thin makeshift ladder hooks onto the top of the wall. Thirty seconds – that is all the time the two young men need to climb the five-meter (around 15 feet) high brown steel slats, hot from the sun, before sliding down the other side. “They are between the first and the second wall now. No longer in Mexico, but not quite in the United States.”* Behind a pair of sunglasses, Pedro Rios, director of a nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping migrants, watches them from a distance. “They are probably going to go find another ladder a bit further along, in a less visible spot,”* he adds, as the two “line-jumpers,” hoods up, walk away hugging the second wall.

It is just another Sunday afternoon along the double steel fence which marks the border between the towns of San Ysidro, in the U.S., and Tijuana, its Mexican “twin.” Ever higher walls, ever sharper barbs, ever more numerous patrols. Although the metropolitan area of San Diego, situated in the far south of California, is no longer seeing the influx of migrants it did in the 1990s and 2000s, it has witnessed a rise in the number of illegal crossing attempts over the past year. More precisely, in the past 16 months, ever since “non-essential” travel was banned at the entry port of San Ysidro through which 150,000 people transited daily from one country to the other before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Surrounding Rios, about 50 activists, placards around their necks, have gathered along the border in a silent march to denounce the United States’ immigration policy. First, second or third generation, all of them have family on the Mexican side. “What was implemented under Donald Trump is still being enforced by the new administration,”* laments Rios. Last year, the Trump administration dug up an article from the Public Health Service Act that allowed it to close the borders and deport any Mexican migrant arrested on the territory — in line with an agreement made with Mexico — without any sort of due process. This rule has just been extended until July 21 by the Biden administration which has deported more migrants since January than Trump did during the whole year of 2020.

The result of this? An accumulation of immigration seekers camping on the Mexican side of the border. “There are still thousands of them in makeshift shelters in Tijuana, waiting until they are able to ask for asylum,”* explains Rios.

Between 10.5 and 12 Million Undocumented Migrants in the US

Lowered to 15,000 by Trump, the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. was raised to 65,000 by his White House successor — a far cry from the 200,000 promised by Joe Biden during his campaign. Rios is disappointed, but not exactly surprised, much like the left wing of the Democratic party. “The immigration issue gained visibility under Trump who made a zero-tolerance policy his trademark,”* the activist explains. “But the problem dates back to the 1980s and no administration has been able to solve it.”* According to the Brookings Institution, a research group, there are between 10.5 and 12 million undocumented people in the U.S.

Symbolizing those difficulties are the “Dreamers” or “DACA children,” named after the program created by Barack Obama in 2012. It allows those who arrived into the U.S. illegally before the age of 16 to remain and work legally in the country, but not to leave it, at the risk of being refused re-entry upon their return. Selene Gutierrez is one of them. She is 37 and has been living in the U.S. for 32 years. Part of her family was deported to Mexico in 2009. “I haven’t seen my sister for 12 years,”* she says.

Since 2012, some 825,000 of them have been granted this status. Back in April, Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin proposed a bipartisan bill that would make more than 1.9 million residents eligible for DACA status and would allow them, under certain conditions, to obtain full U.S. citizenship. For Gutierrez, this would mean being able to go to Mexico and see her sister. “That’s all I want. With every new president, I hope that we will become more than just a political card to play, I have to wait and see.”* Vice President Kamala Harris, who is in charge of the issue, did not bring forward any new information last Friday during her first visit to the border.

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, the quoted remarks could not be independently verified.

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