White House press secretary Jen Psaki warned Wednesday that changes will take time.
“Now is not the time to come,” Psaki said, citing the pandemic and ongoing efforts to put in place a comprehensive process. “The vast majority of people will be turned away. Asylum processes at the border will not occur immediately, will take time to implement.”
In the interim, there’s little clarity on what happens next, leaving room for smugglers to relay their messages.
“Misinformation by smugglers is a problem. They’re salesmen,” said John Sandweg, a former senior Homeland Security official under the Obama administration. “The longer those people are sitting there where they’re in this purgatory, the more likely it is that those people are going to be lured by coyotes to come across,” he added, referring to smugglers who are sometimes also called “coyotes.”
Rumors take hold
“The rumors are debilitating to morale for both (attorneys) and the migrants,” said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration lawyer who represents clients forced to stay in Mexico.
It’s commonplace for smugglers to lie to migrants to sell their services, but years of Trump policies that left thousands waiting on the US southern border has resulted in networks operating only miles from the United States, according to Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, associate professor at George Mason University who studies migrant smuggling networks. That presents an urgent challenge to the Biden administration.
“More and more, now you see specialized migrant smuggling networks operating at the border,” Correa-Cabrera said.
Under the Trump administration, migrants from Central America and other parts of the world who were seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border were forced to remain in Mexico until their immigration court hearings in the United States. Many stayed along the border where they’d have to present for their court hearings.
There are also migrants along the border who have been kicked back under a public health order put in place under Trump that allows for the swift expulsion of migrants, as well as recent arrivals, creating a tenuous situation along the border. Migrants can be easily identified based on their accents or attire and as a result, fall prey to gangs and corrupt authorities, among others.
With the change in administrations, came hope that people waiting for months, if not years, might be able to claim asylum in the US and be allowed in.
During the transition between administrations, officials recognized that migrant’s expectations of the Biden administration were vulnerable to being shaped by smugglers, according to a source familiar with the discussions. “The statement that Susan (Rice) and Jake (Sullivan) made in December reflects the knowledge that human smuggling networks were going to prey on people,” the source said.
‘They can literally see the United States’
While the administration sets up processes, people on the other side of the US border are desperate.
“We’re not looking at people in Latin America, South America, who are thinking now is the time to migrate. It’s people who are already there,” said Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney based in California who works with migrants along the southern border. “They’re so close, they can literally see the United States.”
“I don’t have any way to explain why or how or what are the next steps. It’s getting to the point where people are very frustrated with you,” Levy said, adding that smugglers are tapping into the frustration migrants are feeling.
Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that some migrants will be processed for removal in the US.
“Per longstanding practice, when long-term holding solutions aren’t possible, some migrants will be processed for removal, provided a Notice to Appear, and released into the U.S. to await a future immigration hearing,” the statement reads. “As the Administration reviews the current immigration process, balancing it against the ongoing pandemic, we will continue to use all current authorities to avoid keeping individuals in a congregate setting for any length of time.”
The Biden administration has tried to temper expectations on how quickly they can reverse the previous administration’s policies, but that too can work against them. In some cases, smugglers will offer their services as a faster way to come to the US instead of waiting, according to Correa-Cabrera.
“People are not doing this because they think that the border is going to open to them but because of an expectation that once they’re in they’ll be treated with more respect,” Correa-Cabrera said.
Immigrant advocates and attorneys, meanwhile, are trying to strike a delicate balance of offering hope, while urging patience.
“The issue here is until they figure it themselves, what the right strategy is, that void is going to be filled by others,” said Jennifer Quigley, director of refugee advocacy at Human Rights First.