Roar writer Laura Saracino on the crisis at the US southern border and why now is the time for President Joe Biden to drastically reform the immigration system

During the four years of former President Donald Trump’s administration, immigrants were portrayed as the source of all of America’s problems. The wall at the US-Mexico border was mentioned daily in the headlines of national and international newspapers along with reports of dreadful cases of border patrol officers separating children from their parents at the border.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden proposed a bill called the ‘US Citizenship’ Act that aims to modernise the existing laws on immigration. The legislation is yet to be voted on by the US Congress. As the debate in Washington D.C. rages on, the flow of people from Central and South America into the United States through the southern border has continued to increase. In February of this year, border crossings reached a peak with nearly 100,000 immigrants stopped at the southern border.

Facing a wave of unaccompanied minors from Mexico while tackling the spreading of Covid-19, the Biden Administration’s first move was to reopen Trump-era facilities in Texas to cope with the influx. There are two main federal shelters where minors have been housed after crossing the border: one in the city Carrizo Springs and the temporary processing U.S. Border Patrol in Donna for family units. Although very different one from the other, they have been shown to be highly unsuitable for children.

The Carrizo Springs accommodation centre for migrants reached breaking point during the previous administration as the place in which minors were sent after being separated from their families once they crossed the US-Mexico border. The facility is located on the eastern side of the southern border where Mexico is contiguous to the state of Texas.

The shelters are now overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services who provide medical services, sleeping quarters and all the supplementary support needed while case managers work to connect the minors to their US sponsor.

The legal limit for minors to stay in the facility is 72 hours, but amid Covid-19 restrictions the space is not enough for housing all the children resulting in them staying in the Border Patrol Units for more than the time limit.

President Biden stresses that this is not the same as what happened during Trump years, where families were forcefully separated. The aforementioned legislation along with the negotiation between the US and Mexico seek to set up a process for sending back most adults and families, allowing only unaccompanied children and teens to stay.

The vast majority of migrants under 18 coming to the US have a contact person, usually a close relative, inside the country who is reachable by a telephone number that the child carries on their wristband. While the previous system took weeks or even months before calls were made, the new set-up allows the phone call to be made within 24 hours. The new system also checks who is being called and evaluates the suitability of the person to take custody of the minor, thereby keeping the child out of the hands of traffickers.

The strategies developed to significantly reduce the child population in inhospitable border patrol stations are two-fold. The first is to establish the connection with their sponsor, successfully getting them to the places where their relatives live. The second is to temporarily house them in a Health and Human Services facility or a federal resource where they can be taken care of while their fate is determined.

This is part of the new bill’s rules on immigration that have passed, offering a process towards citizenship for immigrants brought to the US as children as well as extending the status to farm workers and their families. The push is toward a massive immigration system overhaul that is on top of the new administration’s agenda.

Despite the unanimity in directing efforts and resources towards the immigration topic as the priority to be addressed, there are many issues to be tackled, the first being the high sensitivity of the topic between the public.

Since 2016, the Latino population surpassed 18 percent of the US population, a statistic being used by some politicians stoke fear. Hispanics are often portrayed as violent, gang members and job-stealers that use anchor babies to obtain access to citizenship. Members of the Republican Party have tried to play the blame game as a political tool to win back control of Congress in the 2022 Midterm Elections.

Some in the Democratic Party have also been highly critical of the administration though primarily surrounding its use of the Trump-era facilities. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that “[reopening the facility in Carrizo Springs] is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay”.

Even if the choice of reopening can be partially explained by the need for space due to pandemic restrictions, a brand-new strategy needs to be envisioned and implemented as quickly as possible. The system is in tatters and the new administration not only has to pick up pieces but to renew it completely, changing the standards and forging a path towards a long-lasting change to America’s immigration system.

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