CBP: 'Perceptions of U.S. immigration policy changes' driving border surge

Jana Winter and Caitlin Dickson
·5-min read

A surge in large groups of people crossing the border illegally — particularly those that include families and unaccompanied minors — is being driven in part by the belief that the Biden administration’s policies will allow migrants to stay in the U.S., according to an intelligence alert issued by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The alert, dated April 16, appears at odds with the White House’s messaging on the border crisis, which maintains that the increasing number of migrants is being largely driven by corruption, economic chaos and violence in the Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — rather than by more lenient policies. The Biden administration has promised to focus on what Vice President Kamala Harris has called “the root causes of migration,” including economic hardship.

A U.S. Border Patrol agents questions families, as a group of unaccompanied minors (R), looks on after they crossed the Rio Grande into Texas on March 25, 2021 in Hidalgo, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)
A U.S. Border Patrol agents questions families, as a group of unaccompanied minors look on, in Hidalgo, Texas, on March 25 after they crossed the Rio Grande. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The CBP document obtained by Yahoo News suggests some level of disagreement within the government about what exactly is causing the increase. CBP says that “large group apprehensions,” referring to more than 100 migrants, continue to increase at the southern border, and says the surge is “largely attributable to perceptions of U.S. immigration policy changes, economic opportunities, elevated violence and reduced COVID-19 travel restrictions.”

The bulletin also says the apprehension of large groups is “posing safety concerns to USBP personnel.”

“Frontline personnel are focused on humanitarian efforts, drawing resources away from frontline enforcement, and effectively placing border security at risk,” it states.

CBP declined to answer questions about the intelligence bulletin. “It is the policy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to not discuss the validity of any information related to potential unauthorized disclosure of law-enforcement-sensitive documents,” a CBP spokesperson told Yahoo News.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment, but President Biden has made clear he intends to change the culture of immigration enforcement agencies, including CBP. Last week he tapped Tucson, Ariz., Police Chief Chris Magnus, a prominent critic of former President Donald Trump, to head the bureau, and he announced earlier this month that agencies should no longer use the term "illegal aliens," opting instead for “undocumented noncitizens.”

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The controversy over the rising number of migrants at the southern border has become part of a heated political debate, with Republicans seeing it as an effective bludgeoning tool against a Democratic administration. Experts who study migration say the issue is complex but acknowledge there is some truth to the CBP’s claims about the cause of the surge.

“I think that it’s clear that we wouldn't see the numbers of children and families increasing as much as we are without these perceptions of more lenient policies,” said Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

Bolter explained that part of that perception stems simply from the inauguration of a new president who has promised to treat migrants more humanely than his predecessor. But, she continued, it’s also based in part on actual, concrete policy changes the Biden administration has implemented since taking office, such as exempting unaccompanied migrant children from being turned back at the border under Title 42. That provision is a COVID-related public health order issued under Trump that has allowed immigration officials to quickly expel most migrants encountered at the southern border — including those seeking asylum and other protections — since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. For much of the past year, before Biden took office, unaccompanied minors had also been turned back to Mexico under the order.

Bolter added that information spread by smugglers is another key part of how perceived policy changes can influence migrant flows.

Migrants hold a demonstration demanding clearer United States migration policies, at San Ysidro crossing port in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico on March 2, 2021. (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)
Migrants hold a demonstration demanding clearer U.S. immigration policies at the San Ysidro crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, on March 2. (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)

“Smugglers tend to exaggerate what policies in the U.S. are. [They] tend to make them more cut and dry, saying things like ‘the border is open’ to children,” said Bolter. But, she added, “there’s always a kernel of truth in the smugglers' messages. They couldn’t totally make up a U.S. policy because people would find out that they were wrong and then not use their services.”

A former senior immigration official in the Obama administration, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the issue, said that while the Trump administration's immigration policy was “exclusionary, negative and punitive,” Biden’s approach is also flawed.

“From the outset, the politics of the Biden campaign promised to reverse Trump’s actions completely,” the former official said. “However, the more the Biden administration attempts to implement humanitarian policies, the more it incentivizes irregular migration from Central America’s Northern Triangle countries.”

Migrants often rely on word of mouth when deciding whether to undertake the journey to the U.S., the former official said. “In the age of social media, this communication — regarding the success or not of the intending migrant — is immediately impactful in result. When irregular migration succeeds, others will come."

While the Biden administration first sought to downplay the situation at the border, eager to avoid labeling it a crisis, it has now issued several calls across government for volunteers to assist with the growing number of migrants, including unaccompanied children.

US President Joe Biden speaks during climate change virtual summit from the East Room of the White House campus April 22, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
President Biden speaking at the White House on Thursday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

A current Department of Homeland Security official, who asked for anonymity because of not being authorized to speak to the press, expressed frustration at the Biden administration’s policies. The official said the rush to reverse Trump-era policies was done too quickly and without enough thought about what would happen next.

“Is Biden to blame for all this? Yes, but not exclusively. Is it just Biden administration policy? No, but mostly,” said the official, who argued that the manpower drain wouldn’t be so severe if logistics and the potential ramifications of Biden’s executive orders had been thought out beforehand.

“Reversing course in regard to policy with no plan in place to handle this surge,” the official said, “that’s the real issue here. “

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