LOS ANGELES — President Biden’s first immigration crisis has already begun as thousands of families have surged toward the southwestern border in recent weeks, propelled by expectations of a friendlier reception and by a change in Mexican policy that makes it harder for the United States to expel some of the migrants.
More than 1,000 people who had been detained after crossing have been released into the country in recent days in a swift reversal from the Trump administration’s near shutdown of the border. Many more people are gathering on the Mexican side, aggravating conditions there and testing America’s ability and willingness to admit migrants during a pandemic.
New families every day have been collecting in Mexican border towns, sleeping in the streets, under bridges and in dry ditches, according to lawyers and aid groups working along the border. On Thursday in Mexicali, across from Calexico, Calif., desperate migrants could be seen trying to scale a border fence. A migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, just across a bridge from Texas, has boomed to 1,000 people over the past few weeks.
To guard against the coronavirus, health authorities in San Diego have arranged housing for hundreds of arriving migrants in a downtown high-rise hotel, where they are being quarantined before being allowed to join family or friends in the interior of the United States.
“There has been a significant increase in asylum seekers arriving, and we know that the numbers are only going to keep rising dramatically,” said Kate Clark, senior director for immigration services at Jewish Family Service of San Diego, which has been providing the families clothes and personal hygiene items and helping them arrange onward travel.
The surge poses the first major test of Mr. Biden’s pledge to adopt a more compassionate policy along America’s border with Mexico.
The prospect of large numbers of migrants entering the country during a pandemic could create a strong public backlash for Mr. Biden as his administration takes steps to undo the strict policies put into place by his predecessor.
A renewed influx would put pressure on immigration courts already straining under a massive backlog of asylum cases. Those who favor more restrictive immigration policies say that migrants who lose their cases could go underground, choosing to remain in the country unlawfully and adding to the estimated 10 million undocumented people already in the United States.
“It was predictable that there would be virtually no honeymoon for the Biden administration on the multiple crises that are displacing persons in the Northern Triangle states of Central America and elsewhere,” said Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank.
These include the two hurricanes that destroyed many livelihoods and homes in Guatemala and Honduras; the devastating effect of the pandemic on economies across Latin America; and continued gang control of many communities, often accompanied by extortion and violence.
“The Biden administration should be credited with its commitment to address the conditions uprooting Central Americans,” Mr. Kerwin said, “but this will be a very long-term process, and, in the meantime, people have been forced to flee.”
Before former President Donald J. Trump took office, it had been the longstanding practice through several administrations to allow people facing persecution in their home countries to enter the United States and submit petitions for asylum. Some new migrants were held in detention until their cases were decided while others went free.
But Mr. Trump derided such policies as “catch and release,” and in 2019, he imposed a requirement that applicants wait in Mexico until their asylum requests were approved or denied. In March of last year, his administration invoked a health emergency law to effectively seal the border during the pandemic except to citizens and legal residents of the United States. Those who attempted to cross were summarily expelled back to Mexico.
But Mexico in recent days has begun enforcing a law passed in November that bars holding children under 12 in government custody. As a result, it has stopped accepting Central American families with young children back into Mexico, at least along some stretches of the border with Texas, forcing the United States to keep them. In order to avoid holding large numbers of people in shelters or immigration detention centers during a health crisis, Border Patrol has been releasing some of them to join family and friends across the United States.
At least 1,000 migrants have been allowed to cross into Texas in recent days, border activists said, though the Border Patrol has not released any official estimates.
It is not clear to what degree Mexico’s new law on migrant children applies outside of expulsions from Texas, where the Mexicans are enforcing it. But hundreds of migrants have also been released after crossing near the border in San Ysidro, Calif., activists said, and it is likely that the need to avoid congestion at border facilities during the pandemic is a factor there as well.
Health authorities in San Diego have ruled that those crossing into California must remain at the hotel for 10 days before being allowed to go onward. There is no similar quarantine requirement in Texas for migrants who arrive with no coronavirus symptoms, according to volunteers working with the migrants; there, they said, those released by Border Patrol are being allowed to board buses and travel to other destinations.
Jewish Family Service, which is helping families through their hotel quarantines in San Diego, said 140 migrants were released by the Border Patrol to the nonprofit in January, up from 54 in December. During the first five days of February, the number grew to more than 200.
“This is the busiest we have been in a long time,” Ms. Clark said. “We’re working around the clock to keep up.”
News of the Mexican law has sown widespread confusion, with many migrants mistakenly believing that the law, along with the change of administration, means the United States will now allow anyone to cross.
Mother Isabel Turcios, a nun in Piedras Negras, Mexico, a small town across from Eagle Pass, Texas, described a chaotic situation with migrants arriving by the dozens by train each day and parking themselves on street corners and in abandoned houses, hoping for a chance to cross.
“There are many, many mothers with children coming,” she said. “They think they will be allowed to pass because there is a new president. Some are succeeding, not all.”
At the migrant camp in Matamoros, “Every day when we return to camp there are new families,” said Andrea Leiner of Global Response Management, which runs two clinics.
The Border Patrol on Tuesday released 47 families in Kingsville, Texas, and then notified an advocacy group in Houston that the migrants would be needing help.
Despite the Trump administration’s border crackdown, there was a spike in apprehensions — rising to 850,000 — on the southwestern border in the 2019 fiscal year. Arrests plunged in the 2020 fiscal year as a result of pandemic-related restrictions on movement. Yet more than 70,000 migrants and asylum seekers were arrested along the border in December, the last full month of the Trump administration.
Advocacy organizations across the country had been anticipating that the election of Mr. Biden would motivate people to head north again. In recent weeks, they have been convening Zoom calls to strategize how to handle the flow.
But the spike came earlier than expected.
Mr. Biden said before taking office that he would not immediately open the border, hoping to avoid a rush of migration. On Feb. 2, he signed an executive order that directed a full review of the asylum process, but administration officials have said changes to the current system would take time to materialize.
“Unfortunately there are thousands of people and families — including many at the border — who are still suffering thanks to the cruel and ineffective policies that the Trump administration put in place,” said Vedant Patel, a White House assistant press secretary. “Fully remedying these actions will take time and require a full-government approach.”
Desperation is rising among asylum seekers in both Tijuana and Mexicali, the California border crossings, with misinformation spreading through social media and through smuggling networks trying to cash in on the confusion.
“Confirmed: Migrants accompanying minors can enter the United States for 100 days,” read one widely circulated but inaccurate message on WhatsApp.
In Tijuana, lawyers report that more families are choosing to cross the border illegally, hoping to evade detection, rather than wait for clarity on the asylum process, which would entail trying to pass through an official crossing station, at the risk of being denied entry.
“The migrants are starting not to trust advocates because we told them the Biden administration would start processing them shortly after inauguration — because that was the impression we were getting from the transition team,” said Erika Pinheiro, a lawyer with the group Al Otro Lado.
“After the executive orders came out with no substantive information, many of the migrants are angry with us and have started listening to smugglers and wild rumors,” she said.
Dozens of Haitian families crossed the border illegally near San Ysidro on Thursday, according to a border legal aid group, but it was unclear if they were returned to Mexico or taken into custody.
In San Diego, more hotels were being lined up to take in migrants, said Ms. Clark of Jewish Family Service. “We are going to need federal resources,” she said.
One of the families allowed in on Friday was Jose Giusto Duarte, 51, and his wife Iliana, 45. The couple had fled Honduras 18 months ago because of violence, Mr. Duarte said, but were allowed into the United States only this past week on humanitarian parole because of his wife’s poor health.
The couple had been waiting in Tijuana since they left Honduras but decided to try their luck again with Mr. Biden in charge.
“I’m just so relieved and happy in this moment, after so long waiting,” Mr. Duarte said while smiling. After a few hours in Border Patrol custody, they would be allowed to proceed to the downtown hotel for quarantine.
Alexander Martinez and his three children, who fled gangs in El Salvador, were also allowed in this past week. After a grueling interview, U.S. authorities transferred them to the hotel where they were staying with dozens of other migrant families under quarantine.
There, they have been confined to a double room with a terrace on the third floor. Someone knocks on their door three times a day to deliver meals in disposable containers. A nurse calls every day to have them check their temperatures. On Wednesday, they each had a coronavirus test. In the coming days, they will be free to join relatives in Washington.
Mr. Martinez said the extra wait was worth it, even though his children were really bored in quarantine. “We are very happy to be in the United States,” he said.
Miriam Jordan reported from Los Angeles, and Max Rivlin-Nadler from San Ysidro, Calif.