President Joe Biden visited the border this Sunday for the first time since he arrived at the White House. His brief stay in El Paso, on his way to a summit of U.S. leaders in Mexico City, was marked by the legacy left to him by Donald Trump. The Democratic president has tried for two years to shape an immigration policy, but reality has forced him to follow the script written by his predecessor. Especially regarding Title 42, a health rule that Biden has tried to get rid of, but has been forced to maintain by the Judiciary. This Thursday, he announced that border management will be tightened. Access will be allowed for 30,000 immigrants with a sponsor in the United States, but the country will return the same number of people to Mexico each month who meet the requirements.
The end of 2022 has been especially tough at the border. The year closed with the highest illegal immigration numbers seen since World War II. That was more than two million encounters, a euphemism for apprehensions made by the Border Patrol. The flow has been driven by what the Department of Homeland Security has called an "unprecedented exodus" of people leaving Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. "These are nations in crisis and with repressive authoritarian regimes that do not accept the large-scale return of their citizens," Blas Nunez Neto, Homeland Security's acting secretary of Border Policy and Immigration, said Friday.
The official assured that every day along the border, U.S. authorities counted between 7,000 and 8,000 daily encounters of irregular immigrants. "We are also seeing a significant increase in maritime migration from Cuba and Haiti. Border Patrol resources are being depleted," Nunez Neto said. President Biden complained to the press last Thursday that Republicans have rejected a border plan that included $3.5 billion and funds to hire 200 new officials to process asylum requests, as well as the creation of 100 new immigration judges.
So, with no way to return the largest group of people arriving in the U.S., Mexico has been forced to play an uncomfortable role as a holding room for its northern neighbor. This has increased the pressure on an increasingly overburdened Mexican assistance system. In parallel, both governments have been announcing measures to alleviate the humanitarian crisis at the border by, above all, opening their hands to legal visa quotas. The latest package announced last Thursday by Biden moves in that direction as a step towards the summit that will bring him together with Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican president, and Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister.
Biden announced in October a quota of 24,000 humanitarian visas for Venezuelans, one of the nationalities that has grown the most among immigrants. The measure, a replica of the Ukrainian migration relief efforts, was last week expanded with up to 30,000 visas per month for those who come from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua or Haiti and can demonstrate ties or roots in the country. The other side of the coin will be a stiffening of penalties for those who do not meet the criteria: they will be "swiftly" expelled and banned from entering the United States for five years.
Migration will be one of the main items on the agenda, where the plan to invest $23 million in development cooperation, the core of a new migration pact that aims to tackle the socio-economic roots of migration, is expected to be unpacked in greater detail. But some civil organizations have criticized the US president's new announcement. The groups take Washington's announcement to allow the passage of 30,000 citizens with a grain of salt, as the government has not been able to fulfill some of its previous promises. Among these, the increase in the number of refugees that the U.S. will receive in the coming years. A figure that has not been reached despite having announced it in September 2021.
New visas and fight against fentanyl
"The new visas are an important point in favor of Mexico, which has managed to get a concrete agreement after many negotiations and in line with its objectives of expanding legal migration channels," notes Eunice Rendón, a security expert. "The profile of Central American or Caribbean migrants is not that of Ukrainians, who are realistically required to have a passport, a minimum income or to arrive by plane," she adds. The US authorities have not yet published specific data on the number of visas they have actually granted, although they have recorded a considerable drop in the irregular entry of Venezuelan migrants.
For Alexandra Delano, professor of Global Studies at The New School University in New York, "increasing the visa cap is positive, but it is not enough. A structural change is needed, an in-depth reform that addresses an increasingly broad and complex migratory phenomenon that goes beyond the logic of security and border control. "We do not see, for example, that there is more investment, the resource effort continues to fall mainly on civil organizations," says Délano.
The border, however, has more than just humanitarian issues. Security will be another of the reasons for the tug-of-war between the presidents. Biden warned on Thursday, recalling that U.S. customs officials have seized more than nine kilos of fentanyl since August, "enough to kill 1,000 people," according to the president. The DEA, the anti-drug agency, assured that during 2022 they seized more than 379 million lethal doses (two milligrams is enough) of the synthetic opiate, which is enough to kill the entire population of the United States (more than 330 million people). The material seized by authorities last year is more than double what was seized in 2021.
The DEA blames this epidemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Americans in the last 12 months, on drug trafficking driven by the Sinaloa and Jalisco Cartel - New Generation. These organizations produce the chemical with precursors purchased from China. On Thursday, Sinaloa experienced nightmarish moments after the Mexican Armed Forces captured Ovidio Guzman, known as El Raton, one of the leaders of the Sinaloa cartel. His capture coincides with Biden's visit.
Mexico and the U.S. inaugurated a new binational security plan early last year, the Bicentennial Agreement, more focused on paper on prevention and collaboration; and on which the budgets allocated to the bilateral migration agenda depend to a large extent. "So far we have seen rhetorical announcements rather than concrete changes," adds Rendón. Meanwhile, Mexico continues to shoot up its deportation figures and both its southern and northern borders remain as or more armored than under Trump. Between October and November, López Obrador deployed more than 32,000 military and National Guard troops, a record in the last two years. On the other side of the border, in U.S. territory, the line also looked militarized. This is how 2022 ended.