Illegal border crossings would have triggered the new Biden policy years ago

A new Biden administration policy that aims to address illegal southern US border crossings would have been in effect for at least the last three years because of a surge in migrant encounters, a CNN data analysis shows.

The executive action, announced on Tuesday, bars migrants crossing the border illegally from seeking asylum — with some limited exceptions — if the number of encountered by border agents exceeds a daily average of 2,500. Instead, they would be turned away immediately.

The average daily illegal crossings have for years surpassed that threshold, peaking at over 8,000 in December, according to Department of Homeland Security data analyzed by CNN.

The surge driving those record-breaking crossings reflects a worldwide rise in migration over the last five years, driven by factors such as the uneven economic recovery from the pandemic and climate change, according to Colleen Putzel-Kavanaugh, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

Under a pandemic-era restriction, which was lifted last year, federal authorities swiftly expelled hundreds of thousands of migrants encountered at the US southern border.

A CNN analysis found the last time average daily encounters between migrants and US Border Patrol at the southwestern land border were less than 2,500 was in January 2021. The analysis of publicly accessible records on a federal website did not include encounters at southern coastal ports, which are also covered by the policy.

To lift the new policy, the daily average needs to drop even lower — to less than 1,500 average daily encounters for seven consecutive days between ports of entry. The last time illegal crossings at the southwestern land border were that low was in July 2020, the records show.

Before 2019, daily averages close to or below 1,500 at the southern border weren’t uncommon. From 2014 through 2018, only nine months saw more than 45,000 encounters between US Border Patrol and migrants at the southwestern land border. Since 2019, however, only 11 months — mostly during the height of the pandemic from September 2019 to July 2020 — had fewer than 45,000 encounters. Border restrictions intended to stem the spread of Covid-19 in 2020 may have affected the number of crossings.

The main reason for the rise over the last half-decade is a worldwide increase in migration, Putzel-Kavanaugh said. After Covid-19 travel restrictions were eased, recovery was uneven among countries. In some places, public resources, goods and employment remained unavailable longer after the worst of the pandemic. Elsewhere, crises created by climate change or war caused more people to emigrate. The result has been a surge in migration from more countries.

“The goal of this rule seems to be to carry out more deportations in a quicker way,” Kavanaugh-Putzel said.

Under the new executive action, if migrants do state a fear after crossing illegally, they can receive an interview with an asylum officer, but the threshold they must meet is much higher. Border agents also no longer have to ask migrants if they have a fear under the new guidance, leaving it to migrants to express fear of return to their home country which, attorneys and advocates have said, is not always known to them.

It’s too early to know the policy’s impact. The number of encounters between ports of entry has been declining every month since January but remains high, Putzel-Kavanaugh said.

“It’s likely that now that this rule is in place, we will likely see a decrease in border arrivals,” she said. However, these policies often create a “wait and see” effect, where crossings rise again once the true impact of the policy is more widely understood.

CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.

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