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On a beach on the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana, Mexico, a border wall extends into the ocean
Explainer

What is happening at the U.S. southern border?

Photo: Tomas Castelazo/Wikimedia Commons

Violence, climate change, rising poverty and COVID-19 are forcing thousands of people from northern Central America and other regions in crisis to flee their homes. Many, including unaccompanied children, have undertaken a dangerous journey to the United States southern border to ask for asylum.

Seeking asylum is legal under both domestic and international law—even during a pandemic. People arriving at the U.S. border have the right to request asylum without being criminalized, turned back to danger or separated from their families.

Find out what’s happening, what President Joe Biden can do to help and how you can support families seeking safety.

A mother sits on a red couch with her arm around her son sitting next to her. They are in a room with several chairs and a large rug.

"We were living a peaceful life,” says Angelina, 38, who fled Guatemala with her three children. “Then, when they [gang members] killed my brother, that's when everything was disrupted. Every two blocks sometimes you'd find a body. I decided [to leave] because of that situation and also to give [my children] a better life.”

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

Who is crossing the U.S.-Mexico border? 

Many of the people attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border are asylum seekers who have no choice but to flee their homes. They are women escaping gender-based violence, LGBTQ people fleeing persecution, and families and children seeking protection from gang violence. 

The majority come from Mexico and the northern Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, although some are also fleeing violence and persecution in countries such as Venezuela, Cuba and Haiti.

Learn more about how the asylum system works.

Why are people fleeing Central America? 

People are facing worsening conditions in a region that has for years suffered from extreme poverty and some of the world’s highest murder rates outside of warzones.

In the final months of 2020, CuéntaNos, part of the International Rescue Committee's global information platform for refugees and migrants, saw a 1,500% increase in questions from Central Americans about immigration.

Why is this? First, the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have worsened conditions in the region, with an estimated 45.4 million people forced into poverty in 2020 alone. Struggling communities faced another blow in November when hurricanes Eta and Iota struck within three weeks of one another, leaving 3.4 million people in need of urgent assistance.

Gender-based violence is also pervasive in the region. Requests for women’s services and protection information doubled on CuéntaNos from October to November last year. Women and girls seeking safety are stuck in shelters filled beyond capacity with families who lost their homes to the hurricanes. Privacy is limited in these shelters and reports of sexual violence are on the rise.

All of these conditions are exacerbating the violence already plaguing the region. 

“The hardest part about living in El Salvador is the violence,” says 23-year-old Valentina*, who fled to the U.S. after her family was threatened by gangs. “This is what makes life hard, because you leave your house and you don’t know if you’ll return. So, yes, this is a war.”

Valentina, a refugee from El Salvador, stands on a bridge in Dallas, TX, and looks out over the water.

"In El Salvador, you don’t know if you’ll make it home alive at the end of the day," Valentina, a refugee resettled in Dallas, Texas, told the IRC.

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

Why is there a problem with unaccompanied children crossing the border? 

Like other asylum seekers, unaccompanied children are crossing the border to escape violence and persecution. 

Escalating crises are forcing families to make impossible decisions and to send teenagers—or even young children—on a journey fraught with its own dangers, including human trafficking. Many of these children are trying to reunify with parents or other legal guardians already living in the U.S.

Like other asylum seekers, unaccompanied children are crossing the border to escape violence and persecution. 

With 500 or more unaccompanied children arriving in the U.S. every day, and only 500 shelter beds available, the Biden Administration is struggling to provide safe housing or to swiftly release children to family members or other adults who can act as sponsors and take responsibility for their care. 

There is also a large backlog of asylum cases from unaccompanied children: over half of those who have crossed the U.S. border since 2014 (nearly 300,000) still have cases pending.

A close up of a father and son holding hands in an IRC welcome center for asylum seekers in Arizona.

Children who are crossing the border unaccompanied were sent by families who had to make an impossible choice between a risky journey to America and intensifying gang violence at home.

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

Is seeking asylum legal during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Seeking asylum is always legal under both domestic and international law, including during a pandemic. 

Epidemiologists and other public health experts have made clear that asylum seekers and their children can be safely processed at the border using public health measures. Turning asylum seekers away not only violates U.S. law, it sends people, including families with children, back to places where they face persecution and threats to their lives.

Are more people attempting to cross the U.S. southern border under the Biden Administration? 

The U.S. Border Patrol came in contact with almost 97,000 migrants attempting to cross the border in February, up from 75,000 in January. It’s critical to put these numbers in perspective: 1.7 million people attempted to cross between ports of entry (official border crossings) in 2000, for instance. The previous administration also saw higher numbers, with over 144,000 people crossing in May 2019.

Lincy Sopall sits at a desk holding a pencil and looking at a sheet of paper. Her supplies for her fashion design studio are behind her.

Lincy Sopall, a transgender woman who faced abuse and persecution in Honduras, received asylum in the U.S. in 2018 and works as a fashion designer. She says of her decision to flee: "I had only two choices: leave Honduras and live or stay and die."

Photo: Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

Why are more people asking for asylum now? 

The escalating crisis in Central America is the key reason that more people are seeking asylum. 

The Trump Administration unfairly and inhumanely barred asylum seekers by enforcing policies, such as family separation, that were often condemned by Americans.

U.S. policy also plays a role: before leaving office, the Trump Administration unfairly and inhumanely barred asylum seekers by enforcing policies, such as family separation, that were often condemned by Americans. 

The Biden Administration faces the challenge of unwinding the Trump Administration’s disastrous decisions. For instance, the Migrant Protection Protocols (popularly known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy) forced asylum seekers to make their case from Mexico rather than inside the U.S and put tens of thousands of people in harm’s way. The new administration has begun to allow people unfairly turned away by MPP to enter and seek asylum in the U.S.

Watch an Instagram story on the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border and the IRC's work

Alma, an asylum seeker from Guatemala, with her toddler daughter at an IRC-supported shelter in Mexico. She is holding her daughter while laundry dries near them.

Alma, an asylum seeker from Guatemala, with her daughter at an IRC-supported shelter in Mexico. Though local communities have made valiant efforts to welcome turned-away asylum seekers, resources are stretched thin and already-vulnerable families are finding themselves in danger.

Photo: Hope Arcuri/IRC

Are most asylum seekers being allowed into the U.S.? 

The Trump Administration used COVID-19 as a justification to turn away or immediately expel asylum seekers. This policy, activated under public health code Title 42, remains in effect today, meaning most asylum seekers still are quickly turned away. The exceptions are unaccompanied children, some families, and those impacted by “Remain in Mexico.” 

The IRC is calling on the Biden Administration to end this use of Title 42. By following public health best practices, the U.S. can protect both public health and the rights of asylum seekers.

The U.S. can protect both public health and the rights of asylum seekers.

What should the Biden Administration do to help unaccompanied children and other asylum seekers? 

The U.S. has the resources and capability to treat asylum seekers with dignity. Here is what the new administration should do: 

  • Urgently scale up partnerships with humanitarian organizations on both sides of the border that can meet the needs of asylum seekers.
  • Stop the use of Title 42 to turn away asylum seekers. 
  • Send more humanitarian aid to Central America, to address the crisis at its root and to protect and meet the basic needs of people undertaking the dangerous journey to the U.S.
  • End Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detentions and deportations during the coronavirus pandemic. People held in detention are at increased risk of COVID-19 in a system notorious for inhumane conditions and woefully insufficient medical care, while deportations further spread of COVID-19. In addition, due to systemic racism and rampant racial profiling, Black immigrants are at disproportionate risk of ICE detention and deportation. Title 42 has been used to expel Black refugees back to the countries they fled or to dangerous regions in Mexico.

Learn more about how the Biden Administration can create a humane asylum system.

What is the IRC doing to help?

The IRC provides critical support to asylum seekers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border and in northern Central America. 

A banner in Spanish promoting COVID-19 prevention, hanging off of a second floor railing in an old motel that serves as an IRC-supported "triage hotel" in Mexico
In the spring of 2020, the IRC set up a “triage hotel” in Mexico where asylum seekers can be tested for COVID-19 and can quarantine before moving into shelters. Photo: Edith Tapia/IRC

In the U.S., we are providing warm meals, clothing, transitional shelter and travel coordination to asylum seekers released from detention. We are also working with humanitarian partners to respond to asylum seekers’ urgent needs and to provide free legal assistance to migrants facing deportation.

In Mexico, the IRC supports programs that assist women and girls who have experienced violence. We also worked with local partners to launch a COVID-19 public health awareness campaign and, in the spring of 2020, set up a “triage hotel” where asylum seekers can be tested for COVID-19 and can quarantine before moving into shelters. In addition, our InfoDigna platform, similar to CuéntaNos, provides migrants and locals with accurate and up-to-date information. 

In Central America, the IRC is working with a network of 280 partners to help the victims of November’s hurricanes, support women and girls facing gender-based violence, and provide trustworthy information through CuéntaNos.

How can I help unaccompanied children and other asylum seekers? 

Donate to help the IRC provide critical aid to refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. 

Tell the Biden Administration and Congress to repair the broken asylum system, reunite families and ensure that the country never again turns its back on people seeking safety. 

Share this article with your friends and family on Facebook or Twitter to remind them that seeking asylum is a right.