The U.S.-Mexico Border Problem Will Not Be “Solved” Until All Parts of the Border Enforcement System Are Properly Resourced
Sometimes money is just what the doctor ordered to try to solve a problem. Current border security needs are a case in point. The emergency supplemental spending bill the Biden administration has delivered to Congress seeks $13.6 billion in border security funding. While some members of Congress have their own prescriptions for the border that focus more on policy changes than dollars, it is resource infusions of the scope and order of magnitude the administration is proposing that would result in essential policy changes because they would strengthen the functioning of an immigration system that is buckling under intense new pressures.
We have entered a new era of mass migrations that will persist as wars, failed states, violence, climate change, persecution, and economic disparities rise. And aging populations in the United States and other major destination countries mean that there are labor market opportunities that attract those seeking a better life. The collision of these two realities—without adequate legal pathways for those needing protection or able to fill job openings—has led to a vast increase in the number of people attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally and has overwhelmed an immigration and enforcement system that was not built to address these changing flows.
The supplemental lays out the elements for resourcing immigration functions to full capacity across the entire system. Until that building effort happens, it will not be possible for any administration, present or future, to effectively manage spontaneous border arrivals. For decades, politicians have rushed to fund Border Patrol agents, fencing, and other visible aspects of border enforcement. But until the immigration system’s adjudications and management capacities—especially asylum decision-making, the immigration courts, and removal functions—are fully funded and aligned with front-line border enforcement efforts, case backlogs and other breakdowns will incentivize further unauthorized migration.
Building Capacity in a System Out of Sync with Today’s Realities
Today’s migrants are not those of earlier decades: single young men, largely from Mexico, evading the Border Patrol to find work in the United States. For the first time, migrants from beyond Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador represent more than half of irregular border arrivals—up from 12 percent just three years ago. Instead of avoiding border officials, they turn themselves in to request asylum. Many come from countries such as Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua to which it is difficult for diplomatic reasons to return migrants ineligible for asylum, or they arrive as families or unaccompanied minors, for which current processing facilities are inadequate.
The changes in nationalities and demographics have transformed border enforcement imperatives. Since mid-May, following the expiration of the pandemic-era Title 42 expulsions policy, the administration has advanced an ambitious, aggressive border policy regime that is sound and up to the task, if properly resourced.
This post-Title 42 strategy seeks orderliness through incentives for presenting at ports of entry and disincentives for crossing illegally between ports of entry. It provides legal pathways for specific nationalities that face dire circumstances in their home countries. The administration has negotiated agreements with Mexico to accept the return of non-Mexicans, part of a strategy to strengthen cooperation and coordination in the region. And the U.S. government’s new initiative for a network of safe mobility offices throughout the hemisphere is moving forward, allowing for refugee processing, accurate information about migration policies in other countries, and increasingly access to other legal pathways in a controlled manner, as the alternative to chaotic arrivals to the border following dangerous journeys and exploitation by smugglers.
Recently released data for fiscal 2023 show that the policies are succeeding in shifting flows to ports of entry and reducing illegal crossings, both by sizable numbers. Encounters between ports of entry have come down from the monthly peak of 252,000 recorded in December 2022. For the full fiscal year, there were 160,000 fewer unauthorized crossings than in 2022.
Nevertheless, overall implementation of the new strategy is faltering over sheer volume matched against existing insufficient resources and mandates that are severely underfunded. It is not surprising that the 2.5 million encounters recorded in fiscal 2023 represent a new record high for the second year in a row, even if the numbers trying to cross illegally between ports of entry did drop somewhat.
Given how intertwined asylum has become with border arrivals—a new development for the United States—a functional asylum system that decides cases in months, not years, must be at the core of effective border control. Delays deprive those eligible for asylum from gaining protection and encourage further unauthorized flows in the absence of legal immigration pathways. Alongside more uniformed border enforcement personnel, dramatically larger numbers of asylum officers and immigration judges must be added to handle the new caseloads generated by the changing character of migrant flows. The administration’s supplemental spending request includes money to hire 1,600 asylum officers and support staff, 375 immigration judge teams, and 1,470 attorneys and support staff to process cases more quickly and reduce a massive backlog.
Asylum officers are screening about 514 cases daily, the highest number ever. Yet 5,000 people on average now cross the border daily without authorization. The most recent data show that the rate of those passing the initial screening of possible eligibility for asylum has dropped from 85 percent to 59 percent. This is a sign that new policies governing asylum seeking between ports of entry may be beginning to take hold. Nevertheless, the majority of crossers seeking asylum are not being screened for asylum eligibility at all.
Further, the government lacks staffing to implement a rule it published in March 2022 that would significantly streamline the asylum process. The rule authorizes asylum officers to complete the adjudication of border asylum cases, a function that immigration judges have performed to date. Such a move would reduce pressure on a court docket that exceeds 2.7 million cases, with the all-time high in backlogs resulting in delays that now extend out for years.
Resource Constraints Harm Border Control Effectiveness at Every Stage of the System
These shortfalls are mirrored throughout the border control system. Border arrivals ineligible for asylum are subject to expedited removal. But resource limitations in personnel and facilities mean that large shares of cases cannot be decided there. When U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel cannot complete processing and repatriation due to volume, migrants are permitted into the country to complete processing far from the border. This encourages others to try for the same result and has led to severe pressures on destination cities. The administration’s budget supplemental ask would help remedy that by adding 1,300 Border Patrol agents and 300 support staff. It would also provide $1.4 billion in grants to help defray the expenses that local governments and nonprofits are shouldering to house, feed, and provide other services for recent border arrivals.
The agency responsible for migrant processing in the U.S. interior and for removals—U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—also suffers acute resource constraints. Since May, a record 294,000 migrants have been returned to their home countries or Mexico. But again, compared with the numbers subject to removal, this pace of returns is inadequate. ICE’s mission would also benefit from the increases the supplemental would provide for suitable facilities for processing migrants, case management, and transportation for those subject to removal.
The congressional debate that is unfolding around the border supplemental, a component of a far larger emergency spending ask for Israel and Ukraine, includes demands for changes to asylum law and policy in exchange for the funding. While the administration may be forced to accept some policy changes, encumbering serious and urgent funding needs with policy changes that undermine the basic tenets of asylum law and principles are a diversion that will not solve the challenges in border enforcement.
This new chapter in border arrivals requires building a system that ensures fair, timely asylum decision-making and migration management. The administration’s funding proposal enables the scale-up in capacity that is essential to that task. While many other legislative changes are needed for the immigration system to fully advance key national interests, the most meaningful step Congress could take at present is to adopt the border security spending request, thus building much-needed capacity across the system. Investing the resources needed to grant protection to those who are eligible and repatriate those who are not would deliver the border policy change the country needs.