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Broken Border: US Faces an Unprecedented Migration Crisis

Texas Governor Greg Abbot has called on the Biden administration to declare the state of emergency due to a massive influx of illegal migrants into the state. In recent days the migration crisis on the US southwest border has been growing with staggering speed. So what is the American government going to do with the situation?

Thousands of migrants, mainly from Haiti, have flooded Del Rio, an American town on the Mexican border. The migrants crossing the Rio Grande gather under a road bridge where they wait to be processed by the US immigration services. Though the migrants come from several Latin American and Caribbean countries, most appear to be Haitian, fleeing the country after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and an unprecedented earthquake that claimed 2,000 lives.

Haitian passport migration crisis US
A Haitian passport is seen in a pile of trash near the International Bridge between Mexico and the US, where migrants seeking asylum in the US are waiting to be processed, in Del Rio / Reuters

The crowds of migrants, including children and pregnant women, sleeping on the dirt and wandering around the bridge town in extreme heat, has drawn bitter criticism from local officials. Texas Governor Greg Abbot called the situation under the bridge ‘a disaster’, saying there are only 64 immigration service workers per 16,000 migrants.

“I request an emergency declaration for the State of Texas as a result of the ongoing border crisis,” Mr Abbot wrote to President Joe Biden on September 20.

At the same time, local authorities have banned aerial footage of the migrant camp to conceal the scale of the crisis.

Asylum seekers in Del Rio US
Asylum-seeking migrants wait to be processed near the international bridge in Del Rio, TX / Reuters

Bruno Lozano, Del Rio’s mayor, said the makeshift refugee camp under the bridge resembled an unsanitary shantytown with no access to running water, limited food supplies, and just a few portable toilets.

“We are suffering here,” a 26-year-old Haitian national named Tilus told CNN.

Together with his family, Tilus arrived in Del Rio about a week ago after crossing the Rio Grande. He said that getting food has been a real problem, and he’s worried about the children wandering about the encampment in extreme heat.

Another of the inhabitants, called Jose, was optimistic. The eyes of this Cuban guy were bloodshot, and he hadn’t taken a shower for four days, still, he was smiling while charging his cell phone at a migrant centre. His final destination was “paradise”, he said, meaning Miami.

Migrants shelter near International Bridge in Del Rio
Migrants shelter near International Bridge, in Del Rio / Reuters

Local authorities sound the alarm as the relentless inflow of migrants is already stressing Del Rio’s limited resources, putting the border region on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. Apart from putting additional stress on food supplies and public services, the influx of people gathering under the bridge poses health and safety risks. Moreover, the refugee shantytown’s crowded conditions risk a new surge in COVID-19 cases.

“We need quick action from the administration. We need quick attention to this. We need a response in real-time”, said Mr Lozano, urging the federal government to provide support to his town of 35,000 residents.

What are reasons behind the crisis?

The US’ southwest border has long been an Achilles’ heel of America’s immigration system. Here the Rio Grande is the border and is only ankle-deep, which makes the region a popular destination with illegal immigrants coming from Mexico.

Related: Moving Migrants. Meet activists who launched the migrant caravan marching toward the United States

However, this stretch of the border has been inundated with an unprecedented stream of refugees in recent months. More than 200,000 people crossed last month, bringing this year’s total to over 1.5 million. Moreover, the number of crossings has been exceptionally high in the past few days.

Migrants shelter near the International Bridge in Del Rio US
Migrants shelter near the International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas / Reuters

Carlos, a 27-year-old Venezuelan living in the migrant camp in Del Rio, said he believed the under-the-bridge town has doubled in size since he arrived about a week ago. He said he had only $10 left, and about 400 families were ahead of him in the queue for processing.

So, what are the reasons behind this latest surge?

To begin with, most inhabitants of the under-the-bridge town are Haitian nationals, fleeing the country ravaged by political instability. Haiti has been enduring gang violence and widespread protests for many months. The turmoil has been aggravated by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the political situation in Haiti remains precarious, with the new government struggling to win public support before upcoming elections. Furthermore, inter-gang clashes continue, especially in the capital Port-au-Prince, creating additional security challenges. In addition, food prices and the COVID-19 outbreak remain a concern. These factors have been pushing people to flee, searching for a better life, with the US being the most evident destination.

Related: Dying for the American Dream. Willing migrants jump on a death train to reach the US

The situation has been exacerbated by a devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit southwestern Haiti on August 14, 2021, claiming over 2,000 lives and injuring 12,000 people.

People stay in makeshift tents at a camp after the 7.2 magnitude quake on August 14 damaged or destroyed their houses in the Nan Konsey neighbourhood in Haiti
People stay in makeshift tents at a camp after the 7.2 magnitude quake on August 14 damaged or destroyed their houses in the Nan Konsey neighbourhood in Pestel, Haiti, August 23, 2021/ Ricardo Arduengo via Reuters

Another reason behind the current border crisis seems to be Joe Biden’s struggling immigration policies. While the current Democrat administration had discussed rolling back Trump’s anti-COVID rule banning many asylum seekers from entering the US under the pretext of health risks, the decision was eventually put off due to the high number of illegal border crossings and the resurgence of COVID-19.

However, on Thursday, a Texas judge ruled the administration should stop rejecting asylum applications under the public health rule. In recent months, the administration has reduced the number of families turned away under the rule. In August, the rule was used to turn away about 18 per cent of families entering the US without documentation, border data suggests.

What is the government going to do?

Some steps have already been taken to tackle the border crisis. For example, The Border Patrol said it was sending additional staff to Del Rio to facilitate the newcomers’ “safe, human and orderly process”. It also claims to have provided the inhabitants of the under-the-bridge town with drinking water, portable toilets, and towels.

However, the Biden administration seems to be struggling to develop an effective, comprehensive response to the crisis.

The current American president is caught between pro-migrant Democrat groups and others who bitterly criticise the administration’s reluctance to reform the flawed US immigration and asylum system. They say the system fails to adequately address the needs of thousands of desperate migrants and asylum seekers crossing the US border.

Meanwhile, Biden’s Republican opponents say his policies have stimulated illegal immigration.

The disarray seems to stem from Biden’s promising to modernise the US immigration system but still sticking to his predecessor’s hardline approach to immigration. For example, if you come without documentation, you will be arrested or sent home.

The migrants who have crossed the US border illegally and are not eligible for refugee status will be sent back to their home countries. Deportation flights to Haiti have already begun, which the Biden administration hopes will put off other Haitians from trying to cross the US border.

Haitian migrants flown out of Texas border city arrive in Port-au-Prince
Haitian migrants flown out of Texas border city arrive in Port-au-Prince / Reuters

The administration’s handling of the crisis has drawn bitter criticism from both sides of America’s political spectrum. While most Democrats resent such a heavy-handed approach, Republicans urge for further cracking down.

On Friday, over 50 Democrat lawmakers called on the president to stop deportations to Haiti.

“The Haitian government’s ability to safely receive its citizens will take months, if not years, to secure,” the lawmakers said in a letter to the Departments of Homeland Security.

Meanwhile, Texas Republican authorities said they’re ready to award an $11 billion contract to construct the wall along the Texas-Mexico border – the credo project of President Donald Trump.

Related: US and the Wall

The wall project is a part of Operation Lone Star, the state’s controversial programme, launched in March this year. Apart from building a border wall, the programme includes jailing asylum seekers and making disaster declarations. As of September 2, Texas officials have arrested almost 6,000 migrants crossing the US-Mexico border – an unprecedented surge in immigrant detentions. Those arrested by the Texas state officers are charged with criminal trespass, nothing immigration-related, as only the federal government can make such charges.

Critics say some of Lone Star’s measures are unconstitutional. However, Texas Republican authorities are convinced this is the only way to prevent the border region from plunging into a humanitarian crisis, especially considering the federal government’s incoherent response.

“The Biden administration is in complete disarray and is handling the border crisis as badly as the evacuation from Afghanistan,” said Texas Governor Greg Abbot.