President-elect Joe Biden says his priorities when he takes office next month will be the pandemic and economic recovery, but he’s facing another crisis that won’t wait: a wave of desperate migrants on his southern border.
Two ruinous hurricanes that wrecked and flooded swathes of Central America last month have increased the number of families planning a risky journey northward. And after a year of travel bans and soaring unemployment, demand to reach the U.S. was already high.
“There are going to be caravans, and in the coming weeks it will increase,” said Jose Luis Gonzalez, coordinator of the Guatemala Red Jesuita con Migrantes, a non-governmental organization. “People are no longer scared of the coronavirus. They’re going hungry, they’ve lost everything and some towns are still flooded.”
Biden has pledged to abolish many of the migration policies of Donald Trump, including prolonged detention and separation of families, which were designed to deter illegal migration. This encourages more impoverished Central Americans to make the trip and test the Biden administration, said Gonzalez.
“When there is a change in government in the U.S. or Mexico, caravans start to move because they are testing the waters to see how authorities respond,” he said. “What they see is that the one who said he was going to build a wall and hated Latinos is on his way out.”
On social media, announcements are circulating for caravans, groups of migrants traveling together, leaving San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second-largest city, which was hit by both storms. The first caravan is scheduled to leave in the coming days and the second in mid-January.
Biden’s advisers are hoping to shift away from Trump’s policies without signaling that the border has been flung open, according to people familiar with the planning. They know that swift, sweeping changes will spur more people to attempt the journey to the U.S.
Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, dealt with migrant surges during Barack Obama’s administration, when he was deputy secretary. The response included adding detention facilities for adults with children and increasing enforcement and deportations, drawing criticism from civil and immigration rights groups.
“President-elect Joe Biden will restore order, dignity and fairness to our immigration system,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for Biden’s transition. “At its core, his immigration policy will be driven by the need to keep families together and end the disastrous policy of family separation.”
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