Sign in a Tapachula, Mexico, motel expressing a common sentiment among U.S.-bound migrants crossing through from Guatemala but finding that Trump policies have trapped them in the city. (Photo by Todd Bensman)

PERSPECTIVE: Will Another Mass-Migration Tsunami Swamp the Southwest Border?

AUSTIN, Texas – The impact of just-concluded national balloting likely will be felt soon along the U.S. southern border. A significant swell of illegal immigration from Mexico, Central America, and also from troubled countries around the world, is predicted.

Three main sources foretell the probability of a new border crisis: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s inaugural 2020 Threat Assessment released in October, the policy messaging of President-elect Joe Biden, and from migrants themselves pooling in Mexico.

The predicted surge, should it actually come to fruition, would harken to previous influxes such as the 2014–2015 unaccompanied minor crisis and, especially, the 2018–2019 Central American caravan crisis. In the most recent latter case, nearly one million non-citizens swamped detention, asylum, and court systems as they crossed the border in large monthly numbers that in May 2019 reached 140,000.

DHS Threat Assessment

The DHS Threat Assessment released in October is perhaps best known for its media-saturated takeaway that white supremacists pose the nation’s “most persistent and lethal” domestic terrorism threat to America. No serious challenge to its credibility ensued.

Deeper within the DHS report was a less-reported prediction of a system-swamping illegal migration crisis at the Southwest Border in 2021. Its analyst authors wrote that a pent-up wave of Caribbean and Central and South American migrants, especially from Cuba and Haiti, held back by COVID-19 border closures, will strike the southern border and collapse immigration control systems in 2021.

It describes two main push-pull factors starting on page 25: A) lifting of pandemic-era border restrictions among Latin American countries will release postponed, pent-up plans to cross the U.S. border; and B) economic distress from the pandemic coupled with a resurgence in the American economy.

“DHS anticipates that the number of apprehensions at the border will significantly climb post-pandemic, with the potential for another surge as those who were previously prevented from seeking entry into the United States arrive at the border and as poor economic conditions around the world fuel migration,” the assessment says. “This high volume of illegal immigration, including unprecedented numbers of family units and unaccompanied alien children arrivals, stretch government resources, and create a humanitarian and border security crisis that cripples the immigration system.”

Threat Actors, Foreign Terrorist Organizations, and Extracontinental Migrants

DHS also warned migrants from around the world would join the overall surge, spiking the national security risk of “threat actors” that would include foreign terrorist organizations interested in probing for “vulnerabilities in U.S. immigration and border security programs.” (See author video report from Mexico regarding “extracontinental migration”)

Collectively, it said, system collapses “may create an illegal migration environment that FTOs [foreign terrorist organizations] could exploit to facilitate the movement of affiliated persons towards the United States.”

DHS analysts hedged that “although the majority of migrants do not pose a national security or public safety threat, pathways used by migrants to travel to the United States have been exploited by threat actors. As a result, surges of migrants could undermine our ability to effectively secure the border.”

The report names a third factor likely to drive the next mass migration event along with economic and pandemic ones: continued political gridlock that will prevent permanent reforms necessary to deter illegal migration.

The gridlock feeds migrant “perceptions of… U.S. immigration enforcement policies” that will animate decisions to cross.

A New Administration

Economically distressed foreign populations closely monitor a humming social media communications grapevine about when and how American policies and practices make illegal immigration easier or harder, therefore whether their chances to stay inside the U.S. after arrival are higher or lower. Economic migrants are more willing to join caravans or pay smuggling fees if they hear they can both get in and stay in. They stay home if they hear they probably will be thrown back, their effort and payments for naught.

Migrants around the world almost certainly heard Biden’s policy agenda for immigration enforcement as a beacon to come. Among these was a 100-day extendable moratorium on all deportations. Another was an immediate reversal of President Donald Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols, the highly disincentivizing policy that required often ineligible asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for claim adjudication rather than inside the United States, where many abandon their claims or lose them and decide to remain illegally.

Those contemplating illegal immigration also would have heard Biden’s promise to sharply restrict detention and instead provide “humanitarian” food and shelter resources at the border to assist those arriving after arduous journeys. Biden raised his hand during one presidential debate when candidates were asked if they would favor providing illegal immigrants with free access to the nation’s medical care system.

Perhaps most impactful, though, is an official Biden promise to “prioritize a roadmap to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants,” a powerful incentive in Latin America for almost hurried travel to reach the border in time.

Waters Rising Behind the Dam

In January 2020, I reported on the impact of these messages on migrants during a trip to the Mexico-Guatemala border. I randomly interviewed dozens who said they would wait in Mexico for any of the Democratic primary candidates to win and remove barriers erected by Trump. Partly on that hope, tens of thousands like them chose to apply for Mexican asylum because a Mexican National Guard deployment blocked all the roads north (at Trump’s insistence) and Mexico told them they could only stay if they applied.

As one of many of the Central American migrants faced with returning home or applying for Mexican asylum told me during my trip, of their life choices to live in Mexico only until one of the Democrats wins, “I’ll wait for that because it would make things easier to get in.” One El Salvadoran woman coming to Mexico with a child said she’d chosen to live “temporarily” in Mexico, too, on the gamble that “once Trump is defeated and the Democrats take over, things are going to get better.”

Alma Delia Cruz, head of Mexico’s asylum office in the southern state of Chiapas, told me she knew the majority of 70,000 asylum applicants her office was processing (up from 76 the year before) had no intention of staying in Mexico for long.

“This is just their first chance to get into the United States, of course,” she explained. “The threats from Trump can’t deter them from eventually getting into the U.S.”

Other reporting has since confirmed Mexican asylum applications as a temporary tactic, such as this April 2020 El Paso Times report quoting migrants equivocating as to whether they’ll settle in Mexico or head to the U.S. border when conditions allow.

The tide of Central Americans applying for Mexico asylum, meanwhile, continued to build as the American election drew nearer. The applicants include thousands of Haitians, Africans, Cubans, and Middle Eastern migrants, building the pressure cooker of those who would cross when they perceive welcome, material support and the promised amnesties. Untold thousands more U.S.-bound migrants from all over the world have been trapped in Panama due to temporary coronavirus border closures, a situation featuring overcrowded camps filled with people demanding to be allowed to continue their journeys.

The Thin Membrane Holding Back Caravans

In October 2020, Guatemalan police and Mexican National Guard formations, under pressure from the White House, broke up the latest of four migrant caravans that had formed in Honduras since June 2019 and tried to push past to reach the U.S. border. The caravans didn’t make it because, under threat from Trump of ruinous trade tariffs, Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador deployed some 6,000 Mexican National Guard troops throughout Mexico’s southern border regions, deterring and otherwise thinning northbound migrant traffic.

The National Guard deployment remains the only substantial barrier to caravans that continuously form.

As a matter of personal style, it seems highly unlikely that Biden would maintain Trump’s threat of trade tariffs. If that indeed turns out to be the case, Mexico would remove its National Guard, clearing the path for all future caravans.

Although predicting migration flows is notoriously challenging, homeland security agencies keep trying because their jobs require it. But predictions are notoriously fickle, susceptible to unforeseeable factors. A Biden administration, for instance, might not follow through for quite some time with policy ideas that are extremely appealing to migrants worldwide. Ultimately, if he decides to short-circuit what appears to be a forming mass migration crisis, he may be forced to leave some of Trump’s policies in place. If not, he’ll soon be faced with his first national security crisis.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Todd Bensman is the Center for Immigration Studies' Texas-based Senior National Security Fellow. He is the author of the forthcoming book "America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration," due in February 2021 from Bombardier Books. Prior to joining CIS in August 2018, Bensman led homeland security intelligence efforts for nine years in the public sector. Bensman’s body of work with policy and intelligence operations is founded on more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning journalist covering national security topics, with particular focus on the Texas border. In 2009, Bensman transitioned from journalism to join the Texas Department of Public Safety's Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division, where he managed teams of intelligence analysts that worked in concert with federal homeland security and U.S. Intelligence Community agencies to identify and mitigate terrorism threats. From the State of Texas fusion center for nine years, he designed and directed collection operations that fed into the Intelligence Community and prompted or advanced federal counterterrorism investigations. Among his original programs was a specialized effort to help federal partners disrupt human smuggling networks transporting migrants to the U.S. land border from countries where Islamist terrorist organizations are active. Prior to his government experience, Bensman worked on staff for The Dallas Morning News, CBS, and Hearst Newspapers, covering the FBI, federal law enforcement and serving on investigative teams.

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