How the Biden administration is dealing with the surge of migrants at the border

The influx of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border stems from crisis in Central America and Trump-era immigration policy. Here’s how the Biden administration is handling the historic wave of asylum seekers.

Video Transcript

- The Biden administration has been overwhelmed by the number of migrants at the southern border. This wave contains mostly children and families from Central America who are seeking asylum in the United States.

KEVIN SIEFF: So over the last few months, we've seen a pretty dramatic increase, specifically of migrant families and unaccompanied children coming from Central America. And they're mostly coming from Guatemala and Honduras. And we saw those numbers sort of start to increase in January and February, but the spike was much more dramatic in March. The overall numbers may not be unprecedented, the overall migration numbers. But the number of unaccompanied children that we're seeing is at, basically, a 20-year high.

- The current border surge stems from both internal and external factors. Within the United States, former President Donald Trump issued a policy in March 2020 that allowed border patrol agents to expel migrants to prevent the spread of coronavirus. This effectively shut down the border. Under President Biden, this policy remains in place, with an exception for unaccompanied minors and some families. Single adults, even asylum seekers, can't cross the border.

JOE BIDEN: The idea that I'm going to say-- which I would never do-- "if an unaccompanied child ends up at the border, we're just going to let him starve to death and stay on the other side"-- no previous administration did that either, except Trump.

KEVIN SIEFF: The Biden administration has been clear from the beginning that they will not expel or deport unaccompanied children. In Central America, I think there's a general sort of knowledge now that it's easier to cross the border if you're a family, if you're coming with children, or if you are a child, if you're under 18, that your chances of getting across the border are much greater than if you're a single adult, wherein the chances are basically zero.

JOE BIDEN: I can say quite clearly, "Don't come over." And the process of getting set up-- and it's not going to take a whole long time-- is to be able to apply for asylum in place.

- While the policy dictates the United States' response, conditions in these Central American countries of origin remain dire. Migrants are escaping poverty, food insecurity, and internal displacement, which have only been amplified amid the pandemic and two devastating hurricanes.

KEVIN SIEFF: Whatever desperation existed prior to the pandemic and these hurricanes was made much, much worse over the last 12 months. And I-- I've never sort of seen this level of desperation there. It feels to me like people-- even knowing how complicated the journey to the border is, people are willing to take the risk now.

- Children specifically present a unique set of challenges for the immigration system, as shelters fill to over capacity and the Biden administration scrambles to open more.

KEVIN SIEFF: So part of the Biden administration's challenge has been figuring out what to do with tens of thousands of children-- how to process them, how to house them, how to get them to their sponsors if they have relatives living in the United States.

The Biden administration is sort of trying to walk this line, where the Trump administration never really claimed to be exercising any kind of humane immigration policy, whereas the Biden administration has made it very clear that their goal is to promote a humane immigration policy, to promote access to asylum. But at the same time, they're telling people not to migrate. They're saying that the border is closed.

- Vice President Kamala Harris has taken on a leading role in tackling the border crisis. The White House says she'll be more focused on deterring migration in Central America by addressing the root causes of why migrants want to leave rather than concentrating on the US-Mexico border itself.

JOE BIDEN: The best way to keep people from coming is keep them from wanting to leave.

- But this raises the question--

KEVIN SIEFF: Is it even possible through development assistance to keep people from migrating? And the consensus is that it really isn't, you know, that there is no short-term solution, that the structural problems in Central America are so dire that there's no aid project that's going to keep people at home. But nonetheless, we're about to see what a $4 billion US development package looks like in Central America and what impact it has.