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The U.S. Immigration System May Have Reached a Breaking Point

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For years, there have been warnings that America’s immigration system was going to fail. That time may be now.


Migrants in Matamoros, Mexico, line up for food donations last week as they waited to cross into Brownsville, Tex.CreditCreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times


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SAN YSIDRO, Calif. — It was never like this before.

The migrants come now in the middle of the night or in the bright light of day. Men and women arrive by the hundreds, caked with dirt, with teens and toddlers in tow. They jump the small fences in remote parts of Texas, and they gather on the hot pavement at the main border crossing in California. Tired and fearful, they look for the one thing that they pray will allow them to stay in the United States, at least for a while: a Border Patrol agent.

Gone are the days when young, strong men waited on the Tijuana River levees for their chance to wade across the water, evade capture and find work for the summer. These days, thousands of people a day simply walk up to the border and surrender. Most of them are from Central America, seeking to escape from gang violence, sexual abuse, death threats and persistent poverty. The smugglers have told them they will be quickly released, as long as they bring a child, and that they will be allowed to remain in the United States for years while they pursue their asylum cases.

The very nature of immigration to America changed after 2014, when families first began showing up in large numbers. The resulting crisis has overwhelmed a system unable to detain, care for and quickly decide the fate of tens of thousands of people who claim to be fleeing for their lives. For years, both political parties have tried — and failed — to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, mindful that someday the government would reach a breaking point.

That moment has arrived. The country is now unable to provide either the necessary humanitarian relief for desperate migrants or even basic controls on the number and nature of who is entering the United States.


Migrants seeking to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents wait behind a portion of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso.CreditTamir Kalifa for The New York Times


The immigration courts now have more than 800,000 pending cases; each one takes an average of 700 days to process. And because laws and court rulings aimed at protecting children prohibit jailing young people for more than 20 days, families are often simply released. They are dropped off at downtown bus stations in places like Brownsville, Tex., where dozens last week sat on gray metal benches, most without money or even laces on their shoes, heading for destinations across the United States.

At the current pace of nearly 100,000 migrants each month, officials say more than a million people will have tried to cross the border in a 12-month period. Some of those arriving today will have a strong legal case to stay under international refugee treaties and federal asylum laws, but most won’t have a formal asylum hearing until 2021.

The flow of migrant families has reached record levels, with February totals 560 percent above those for the same period last year. As many as 27,000 children are expected to cross the border and enter the immigration enforcement system in April alone. So crowded are border facilities that some of the nearly 3,500 migrants in custody in El Paso were herded earlier this month under a bridge, behind razor wire.

In recent days, officials have grasped for ever-more-dire ways to describe the situation: “operational emergency”; “unsustainable”; “system wide meltdown.”

One top official said simply: “The system is on fire.”

For President Trump, the situation at the border has generated red-hot fury. It erupted again on Sunday as he abruptly forced out Kirstjen Nielsen, his long-embattled homeland security secretary, for what he considered her failure to put an end to the surge of migrants.

In recent days, the president has landed on a dark new message that, if taken literally, could mean an end to all immigration — legal and illegal — across the Mexican border.

The immigration courts now have more than 800,000 pending cases; each one takes an average of 700 days to process. And because laws and court rulings aimed at protecting children prohibit jailing young people for more than 20 days, families are often simply released. They are dropped off at downtown bus stations in places like Brownsville, Tex., where dozens last week sat on gray metal benches, most without money or even laces on their shoes, heading for destinations across the United States.

At the current pace of nearly 100,000 migrants each month, officials say more than a million people will have tried to cross the border in a 12-month period. Some of those arriving today will have a strong legal case to stay under international refugee treaties and federal asylum laws, but most won’t have a formal asylum hearing until 2021.

The flow of migrant families has reached record levels, with February totals 560 percent above those for the same period last year. As many as 27,000 children are expected to cross the border and enter the immigration enforcement system in April alone. So crowded are border facilities that some of the nearly 3,500 migrants in custody in El Paso were herded earlier this month under a bridge, behind razor wire.


At the bus station in Brownsville, Tex., city officials took over a section of empty counter space to manage the intake of migrants, who wait in line after being dropped off by ICE.CreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times