One of the most daunting immigration challenges facing the Biden administration is what to do about the multitudes of migrants who want asylum protection in the United States.



The Trump administration all but shut down the process of claiming asylum in the U.S. The task of untangling those policies and figuring out what is next will be a daunting one for the new administration. Meanwhile, there's huge pent-up demand for protection, which has caused anxiety among officials of the southern border. They worry a new surge of asylum-seekers could provoke another humanitarian crisis. NPR's John Burnett reports.


JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Children are practicing their music lessons inside this ragged tent city on the edge of America. Six hundred refugees are living here in Matamoros, Mexico, waiting to find out if the U.S. government will grant them asylum. The refugee camp owes its existence to President Trump's Remain in Mexico program, which his administration titled - his critics say perversely - the Migrant Protection Protocols. Thousands of asylum-seekers are waiting here in this squalid camp and in inhospitable Mexican border cities like Tijuana, Juarez and Reynosa. Trump's policy made them stay here rather than let them into the U.S. to await their court hearings because some of them disappear after they lose their asylum cases.

SANDRA ISABEL ZUNIGA: (Through interpreter) The cold. The wind. When it rains, there's mud. Lots of mosquitoes. Lots of rats - the rats get into all of our belongings.

BURNETT: Sandra Isabel Zuniga, a 38-year-old Honduran refugee, lives in a flimsy tent with her 13-year-old son. She arrived last March, she says, fleeing an abusive husband, just as U.S. authorities shut the border because of the pandemic. To pass the time, Zuniga sews flowery COVID masks and teaches at the Sidewalk School, which offers free instruction to migrant children waiting in Mexico.

ZUNIGA: (Through interpreter) Now that there's a new president, I'll keep praying that God touches his heart and they come up with a strategy to help us here. Life is really rough here.

BURNETT: Human Rights First and Physicians for Human Rights have documented appalling conditions for the estimated 25,000 refugees waiting along the Mexican border - kidnapping, extortion, physical and sexual violence. Only hours after his inauguration, Biden signed an order suspending the Remain in Mexico program. But he told immigrants to stay put while his Homeland Security Department fashions a new plan.

Biden's campaign promises for kinder, more welcoming immigration policies have raised hopes for desperate people throughout the hemisphere. Early this week, Guatemalan police beat back a caravan of thousands of Hondurans who were beginning the long trek to the U.S. border. Conditions driving people from their home countries - crime, violent spouses, joblessness and hurricane destruction - are not going away. And this is what makes Texas border mayors nervous.

JUAN MENDEZ: It's not difficult to predict that we're going to see some more individuals coming across our borders.

BURNETT: Trey Mendez is the mayor of Brownsville, which is across the river from Matamoros.

MENDEZ: So any sort of policy that may allow for more individuals to cross is something that we want to coordinate with the federal government.

BURNETT: Just up the highway, the city of McAllen experienced a humanitarian crisis in 2018. Mayor Jim Darling well remembers when the Border Patrol was dropping off as many as a thousand immigrant mothers and children a day at the downtown bus station.

JIM DARLING: You know, we can't have everybody in Central America come here. The education, health and all those concerns that they have, they'll bring with them to this country. That makes no sense. We can't afford it. And we have to take care of our own.

BURNETT: Just three weeks ago, federal agents shut down a border crossing between El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, when hundreds of frustrated asylum-seekers protested on the international bridge. And this week, El Paso's Office of Emergency Management made preparations for new surges of immigrants. No one wants chaos at the border, least of all the Biden administration. But senior Biden advisers say they cannot overhaul the asylum system with the flick of a switch. It will take months to increase processing capacity and create fairer asylum policies. Even then, the truth is, most U.S. immigration judges deny the sorts of asylum claims brought by Central Americans.

Back in 2018, Sister Norma Pimentel was overseeing a shelter that received hundreds of immigrant families a day. She's director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

NORMA PIMENTEL: It was unbelievable for me to see humanity in such a hurting, suffering state.

BURNETT: Sister Norma thinks whatever the Biden administration comes up with will be a dramatic improvement over the Trump years.

PIMENTEL: It's my belief that the United States has the power and the capacity to respond correctly to do the job, you know. We do. We just haven't put our efforts in the right place. Don't just put them all together as all criminals because they're not.

BURNETT: She's hopeful the new administration will create a new paradigm that maintains border security but respects the claims of people who come seeking protection.

John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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