said in a Twitter post after the visit, adding, “This cruelty is not who we are.”

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Japan Is Shaken After a Detainee, Wasting Away, Dies Alone in Her Cell

NAGOYA, Japan — First came a high fever. Then her face and limbs turned numb. Soon, she could keep down little more than water, sugar and bites of bread as she wasted away in her cell in a Japanese detention center.

By early March, Wishma Rathnayake — a migrant from Sri Lanka who was being held for overstaying her visa — could barely make a fist and was having trouble speaking, according to government records detailing her care. Yet week after week, as she begged to be released to a hospital for treatment, her jailers refused. She and her supporters believed the authorities had already made their own diagnosis: that she was faking her illness to avoid deportation.

On March 6, at the age of 33, Ms. Rathnayake died alone in her cell.

Her case has become a source of outrage for critics of Japan’s immigration system, who say that Ms. Rathnayake was the victim of an opaque and capricious bureaucracy that has nearly unchecked power over foreigners who run afoul of it.

The tragedy has spurred a national reckoning. Japan, a country with a long history of hostility toward immigration, is now grappling with its at-times inhumane treatment of foreigners, especially people of color, and many are calling for change.

They point to a system in which most immigration decisions are made in secret, offering migrants little recourse to the courts. Those who overstay their visas or who have entered the country illegally can be held indefinitely, sometimes for years. And migrants who file asylum claims, as Ms. Rathnayake once did, are particularly unwelcome.

Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, settles less than 1 percent of applicants seeking asylum, including just 47 last year — a point of contention among other countries that have called on Tokyo to do more.

Immigration officials are “police, prosecutors, judges and jailers,” said Yoichi Kinoshita, who left the government’s immigration bureau over its lack of clear standards to guide its sometimes life-or-death decisions. He now runs an advocacy group focused on fixing the system.

On Tuesday, the Japanese government, facing growing pressure over Ms. Rathnayake’s death, made two major concessions.

The governing Liberal Democratic Party abandoned an effort to revise Japan’s immigration law, as opposition lawmakers said they would not start debate over the changes unless the government released video footage of Ms. Rathnayake taken in the detention center just before she died.

The government had argued that the revisions would improve treatment of detainees, in part by stopping lengthy detentions, which have drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups for decades. But critics took particular issue with changes that would have allowed Japan to forcefully repatriate asylum seekers, potentially returning them to dangerous situations in their home countries.

Also on Tuesday, the justice minister, Yoko Kamikawa, agreed to meet with Ms. Rathnayake’s two sisters in order to “express my condolence.” Ms. Kamikawa has repeatedly declined to address the specifics of Ms. Rathnayake’s death, whose cause has yet to be officially determined. She has said she will withhold comment until the immigration bureau has completed an inquiry into the case. The bureau, in a statement, reiterated her remarks.

Ms. Kamikawa announced the meeting as her ministry, which administers the immigration bureau, has come under regular attack in the news media for its role in Ms. Rathnayake’s death and its evasiveness about the causes. Protesters have gathered nearly every day in front of Parliament, and objections lodged by opposition lawmakers have been unusually fierce.

These lawmakers want to overhaul an immigration system in which the outcomes for those caught inside can be bleak. At least 24 detainees have died since 1997, according to the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees. Activists have alleged government negligence in some cases, most recently the deaths in 2020 of an Indonesian man and in 2019 of a Nigerian man on a hunger strike. Official inquiries have not supported the accusations.

None of those cases have inspired the public anger engendered by the death of Ms. Rathnayake, a hopeful young woman who had come to Japan with dreams of teaching English.

In the summer of 2017, she began studying Japanese at a school in the Tokyo suburbs. On her Facebook page, she shared photos of trips to Buddhist temples and to the mountains, where she delighted in snow.

Around six months into her program, she began skipping class, said Yuhi Yokota, the school’s vice principal. Before long, she moved into an apartment with her boyfriend, another Sri Lankan student she met in Japan. The couple then disappeared, a development that school officials reported to immigration authorities, Mr. Yokota said.

Hoping to stay in Japan, Ms. Rathnayake applied for asylum status, but the government denied a request to renew her residence permit, and she withdrew her application. Officials soon lost track of her.

Then, last August, she appeared at a police station in Shizuoka, on the Pacific coast of central Japan, asking for protection from her boyfriend, who she said had abused her. She said she wanted to go home, but had less than $20 to her name.

The authorities were more interested in another problem: Her residence permit had expired and she was in Japan illegally. They sent her to a detention center in Nagoya, a few hours southwest of Tokyo, to await deportation.

Several months later, she received a letter from her ex-boyfriend. He knew that she had reported him to the police, he wrote, adding that he would seek revenge if she returned to Sri Lanka.

Ms. Rathnayake decided she would be safer in Japan. With the encouragement of a local nonprofit organization, START, she decided to try to stay.

The move irritated officials at the detention center, said Yasunori Matsui, the group’s adviser. They demanded that she change her mind, she told him during one of his frequent visits.

In late December, Ms. Rathnayake fell ill with a fever, and within weeks she was having trouble eating, according to the nonprofit.

She tried to pass the time by watching television, but the commercials for food made her unbearably hungry.

Ms. Rathnayake was suffering from extreme anxiety, doctors found. A nurse suggested dealing with it by writing a diary with all of the things she was thankful for. In late January, a doctor prescribed her vitamins and painkillers. After they made her vomit, she resisted taking more.

Care was limited at the detention center’s medical facility, which was more like an infirmary than a clinic.

Officials said her problems were caused by “stress,” she wrote in a letter to Akemi Mano, a local activist, adding that “they don’t take me to the hospital.”

The authorities took Ms. Rathnayake to a gastroenterologist in early February. The exam was inconclusive, but if she could not keep down her medicine, she should be hospitalized, the doctor wrote in a medical report reviewed by The New York Times. The comment conflicts with the official government account of the visit, which says no recommendation for hospitalization was made.

Ms. Rathnayake was returned to the detention center. Soon, she could no longer walk. When she met with her representatives of START, she was rolled out in a wheelchair with a bucket in her lap.

She had filed for a provisional release in January, citing anxiety. Detention centers had already released hundreds of healthy detainees because of concerns about the coronavirus, but in mid-February, her application was denied without explanation. Soon after, she submitted a second one on medical grounds. She was so weak she could barely sign the form, Mr. Matsui said.

Despite the severity of her symptoms, officials waited until March 4 to take Ms. Rathnayake to a hospital. A psychiatrist who examined her wrote that her sponsors had told her that being sick would improve her chances of being released, according to a medical record reviewed by The Times and first reported by TBS, a Japanese broadcaster. START denies the allegation.

The cause of Ms. Rathnayake’s illness was unclear, the doctor noted. While it was possible that she was faking, he wrote, there would be no harm in granting her request for medical release, adding that “if you think about the patient’s benefit, that’s probably best.”

Two days later, Ms. Rathnayake was dead.

At the end of April, a group of opposition lawmakers held a video meeting with Ms. Rathnayake’s mother and sisters. One after another, they conveyed their deepest apologies and asked what they could do to help assuage the family’s grief.

“I want to know why they let her suffer,” her mother said. “Why didn’t they take her to the hospital as soon as possible?”

For now, the family can only speculate. An interim report on Ms. Rathnayake’s death, released by immigration officials last month, is filled with minute detail, like blood pressure and oxygen saturation readings during each checkup, the exact time she was administered medicine for her headaches or chest pain, every bite of food she ate or rejected.

But it omits the most important information: an answer for Ms. Rathnayake’s mother.

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With Official Housing Scant, French People Open Their Homes to Migrants

PARIS — Walking home one night several years ago in a suburb of Paris, Raphaël Marre was horrified to see a group of migrants and asylum seekers sleeping on the street outside his home.

Why wasn’t the government housing them? he wondered. After witnessing the same scene for several weeks, he and his wife decided to do it themselves, signing up with a nonprofit that links migrants with people in the Paris region willing to open up their homes for a few nights.

“That was a triggering moment,” Mr. Marre said. “We thought, ‘This can’t be happening, we have to do something.’”

Five years after a migrant crisis that convulsed Europe, France is still struggling to accommodate the thousands of people who have applied for asylum in France. And Mr. Marre is still welcoming them into his home.

France, and much of Europe, was facing a large influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, driven from their homes by war and economic deprivation.

introduced an initiative that would create 4,500 new spaces in 2021. However, it is “still far from enough to meet the needs,” said Ms. Le Coz.

France’s struggle to accommodate migrants and asylum seekers has become particularly conspicuous in the streets of the Paris region. In what has become a seemingly never-ending cycle, the police regularly clear out hundreds of migrants and raze their tents and shacks, often offering them no alternative but to move somewhere else.

Utopia 56 relies on a network of volunteers, private citizens, parishes and private companies that have sheltered nearly 3,000 people during the pandemic.

Xavier Lachaume, 31, and his wife have hosted eight families in their apartment in Saint-Denis, a northern Paris suburb, since January. For now, visitors stay in their spare bedroom for a couple of nights, which they plan to turn into a room for a baby they expect in coming months.

82,000 asylum applications in 2020, according to Eurostat, Europe’s statistics agency. First-time applicants declined more than 40 percent from 2019, a drop partly attributed to the coronavirus. But Mr. Manzi predicts another surge once the pandemic passes.

President Emmanuel Macron told Brut, an online news site, in December that “the slowness of our procedures means that” asylum seekers “can indeed find themselves for weeks and months” without proper accommodation.

right-wing politicians and conservative news media increasingly drawing a link between illegal migration and terrorism. Mr. Macron’s government has adopted a tougher approach on immigration, hoping that lures voters away from the far right.

Mr. Sanogo said he had arrived in France in 2016 after fleeing Ivory Coast, citing continuing turmoil stemming from the 2011 civil war that tore apart the country, and has lived in a series of workers’ hostels, making money off the books as a construction worker. His wife and their 9-year-old daughter joined him last month, but they were not allowed to stay in his hostel, forcing them to sleep in the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris.

Mr. Sanogo, 44, said his asylum application when he arrived in 2016 had been rejected because he did not make the request in Italy, where he first arrived in Europe, as he was supposed to do under E.U. rules. But he said he had an appointment with a lawyer to make a new application in France, this time with his family.

As he boarded the Metro with his family to go to their hosts, Mr. Sanogo recounted how he had made his away from Ivory Coast to Libya, were he said he was beaten up and robbed by traffickers, and eventually made it to Italy after a perilous boat trip across the Mediterranean.

Mr. Sanogo seemed grateful for Mr. Marre’s hospitality, but mindful that it was only for a night, said he had hidden a bag full of clothes and sheets on the outskirts of Paris.

“If we have to sleep outside,” he said.

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They ‘Bombed My Dream’: Denmark Strips Some Syrians of Residency Status

Ghalia al-Asseh had just begun studying chemistry and biotechnology at the Technical University of Denmark when the country’s immigration services summoned her for an interview.

For five hours, immigration officers asked about her proficiency in Danish, which she speaks fluently. They inquired how well integrated she was in Denmark, where she has lived with her family since fleeing Syria in 2015.

During the interview, in February, officers also told Ms. al-Asseh that the security situation in her hometown, Damascus, had improved, and that it was safe for her to return to Syria, she recalled in a telephone interview last week.

Ms. al-Asseh, 27, was losing her right to live in Denmark — even as her four brothers and parents could stay, and she had nowhere else to go.

not stable enough to be considered safe for returnees.

Those being asked to leave include high school and university students, truck drivers, factory employees, store owners and volunteers in nongovernmental organizations. All risk being uprooted from a country where they have built new lives.

“It is as if the Danish immigration services has bombed my dream, just as Bashar al-Assad bombed our homes,” said Asmaa al-Natour, 50, referring to Syria’s president. “Only this time the bombing is psychological.”

“ghettos,” and doubled punishments for certain crimes in these areas.

They have also overhauled the country’s legal apparatus on immigration, shifting it from integration to the accelerated return of refugees to their native countries. Hundreds of Somali refugees have also lost their residence permits after Denmark deemed Somalia safe to return to.

Per Mouritsen, an associate professor of political science at Aarhus University, said the government had toughened its stance on immigration in recent years to avoid losing votes to the right wing, a dilemma that several center-left parties across Europe have faced.

“The only way to beat the right-wing in Denmark is to sell your soul to the devil and be as tough on immigration in order to have support for social welfare policies in return,” Mr. Mouritsen said.

Last year, the number of refugees leaving Denmark exceeded the number of arrivals. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has vowed to go further, saying that Denmark will aim to have “zero asylum seekers.”

said in February.

For those willing to return to Syria, Mr. Tesfaye said that Denmark would offer “a huge bag of travel money.” The authorities say that hundreds decided to return voluntarily.

Michala Bendixen, Denmark’s country coordinator at Refugees Welcome, a nonprofit, said the policy threatened to tear Syrian families apart. “The only purpose is to make Denmark the last place to choose as an asylum seeker,” she said in an interview.

Because the Danish government does not maintain diplomatic relationships with Mr. al-Assad’s government, the authorities cannot forcibly deport refugees. Since most of them are unwilling to return voluntarily, those who lost their appeals after their residency was revoked are likely to be sent to departure centers.

The Danish authorities did not respond to questions about why the policy was implemented for Syrians and how many had been sent to departure centers.

collapsed economy and half of its prewar population displaced. Mr. al-Assad has reclaimed control of two-thirds of its territory, including the Damascus area. He has also called on Syrians to come back, but many say they won’t for one reason: Mr. al-Assad himself.

Syrian Network for Human Rights, and the European Union’s asylum body has warned that voluntary returnees are at risk of detention, torture and death.

“The absence of fighting in some areas does not mean that people can go back safely,” said Ms. Slente of the Danish Refugee Council.

Ms. al-Asseh, the chemistry and biotechnology student, said she had tried to focus on her studies since learning that her residency permit would be revoked. Yet she said the thought of starting over again terrified her.

“I’m not a danger. I’m not a criminal,” she said. “I just want to live here.”

Rick Gladstone contributed reporting.

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With the U.S. Asylum System Closed to Many, Some Find Sanctuary in Mexico

MEXICO CITY — Record numbers of asylum seekers are applying for sanctuary in Mexico — some after arriving at the southwest border of the United States hoping to find a safe haven under President Biden, but hitting a closed door.

In March, the Mexican government received asylum petitions from more than 9,000 people, the highest monthly tally ever, officials said. And they predicted that the surging demand, evident in recent month, would continue, possibly reaching a total of 90,000 asylum requests by the end of the year, which would also be an all-time high.

The soaring numbers of asylum petitions in Mexico are in part a reflection of the turmoil at the American border, where the Biden administration is struggling to deal with a surge in undocumented migration and has prevented many asylum seekers from presenting their cases to immigration officials.

Mexico has also become an increasingly attractive destination in its own right for refugees, who have generally found asylum easier to achieve in Mexico than in the United States. Some have also been drawn by the opportunity to reunite with family and friends, and by possibilities of work and a degree of safety that they lacked at home.

has become a more attractive destination for migrants.

Mr. Trump accelerated this process with aggressive efforts to restrict both legal and illegal immigration, including strategies to discourage asylum seekers by making it more difficult for them to secure sanctuary. Among those efforts was a widely criticized policy called Migration Protection Protocols, or M.P.P., that forced those seeking asylum in the United States to wait in Mexico while their cases were processed in American courts.

slowdown in global migration, the number of asylum petitioners dropped to about 41,200 last year. But in the past several months, the volume has risen sharply once again.

This spike has dovetailed with a surge of migrants to the southwest border of the United States driven in part by economic misery that has deepened during the pandemic, two devastating hurricanes that wrecked swaths of Central America and an abiding hope, sometimes fostered by smugglers, that the new administration in Washington would loosen restrictions at the border.

But many migrants and refugees have arrived in Mexico only to find that access to the United States is not as easy as they were led to believe.

are being detained, processed and released into the U.S.

But American officials have continued to use an emergency rule, implemented by the Trump administration, to rapidly expel single adults, who have made up the majority of those caught at the border. Migrants’ advocates say the use of the rule has blocked many asylum seekers from applying for sanctuary.

Once again a tent encampment has cropped up near an official crossing in Tijuana, sheltering migrants hoping for a chance to present their cases to the American authorities.

Fray Matías Human Rights Center, a migrants’ advocacy group in the southern city of Tapachula. “It’s not a second option.”

Some refugees inclined to stay in Mexico are seeking to reunify with relatives and friends who arrived earlier and put down roots, said Mr. Ramírez, director of the Mexican asylum agency, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, or Comar.

Some are also drawn by Mexico’s enormous demand for low-income labor, a need that the government has advertised.

“If they compare the type of life they have in their own countries, at the end of the day they have it better here,” in Mexico, Mr. Ramírez said.

And the country’s approval rate for asylum is high: During the first three months of this year it reached 73 percent, with another 7 percent receiving other sorts of humanitarian protection.

Hondurans — fleeing a toxic mixture of economic distress, government corruption and ineptitude, violence and natural disasters — have been far and away the single largest population of asylum seekers in Mexico since 2019. Approval rates for Honduran petitions concluded during the first three months of this year hit 86 percent.

“We don’t know if it’s their first or their second intention” to remain in Mexico, Mr. Ramírez said of asylum petitioners. “What we can tell you is that more and more people are coming to us.”

The historic number of people filing new asylum petitions in March came despite a decision by the Mexican government last month to close the nation’s southern border to nonessential traffic. The continuing flows of refugees arriving from the south has further exposed the extreme porousness of that border and, migration experts say, the weakness of Mexico’s immigration enforcement efforts.

“These are people who clearly don’t want to go back home,” said Cris Ramón, an immigration consultant based in Washington. “And they’re going to find a mechanism to stay in Mexico or in the United States.”

Oscar Lopez and Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting

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Surge in Migrants Defies Easy or Quick Solutions for Biden

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration warned on Tuesday that the United States expected to make more apprehensions along the southwestern border this year than at any time in the past two decades, underscoring the urgency for the White House to develop solutions for the chronic problems with immigration from Central America.

The grim prediction by Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security, came as President Biden was being assailed for his handling of a surge at the border involving thousands of unaccompanied children and teenagers from the region — with attacks coming from the right for not being tough enough and from the left for not being humane enough.

The president has pleaded for time and patience, blaming his predecessor for dismantling the immigration system in his zeal to keep foreigners out. But even Mr. Biden’s top advisers acknowledge that after unwinding the harsh policies of President Donald J. Trump’s, there is no easy or quick fix for a problem that has been a recurring crisis.

“We have no illusions about how hard it is, and we know it will take time,” Mr. Mayorkas said in a statement on Tuesday as the House prepared to vote this week on several immigration measures and the administration rushed to provide more housing for the young migrants arriving at the border. But, he added, “We will get it done.”

restart the Obama-era Central American Minors program, which was intended to allow some children to apply in their home region for permission to live in the United States with a parent or other relative. When Mr. Trump ended the program, about 3,000 Central American children had been approved for travel to the United States.

It will take time to ramp up the program, which has strict vetting requirements, in order to verify the relationships of the children and their relatives.

Now, the administration is eager to examine even broader efforts to consider asylum applications remotely.

The administration is already testing a system where migrants, who were told by the Trump administration to wait along the border in squalid camps in Mexico, can use an app on their cellphones to apply for asylum and track their cases. That kind of system might be expanded more broadly, officials said.

“This is the road map going forward for a system that is safe, orderly and fair,” Mr. Mayorkas said.

Many of the changes Mr. Biden wants are included in comprehensive immigration legislation he sent to Congress on his first day in office. But that bill is a long way from becoming law, especially with Mr. Trump and other Republicans again using immigration to stoke their partisan base.

Mr. Biden’s most ambitious — and difficult — goal is to use the United States’ wealth and diplomatic power to reshape the region in the hopes of diminishing the root causes of migration from Central America, starting with poverty and violence.

It is an effort that has been tried before, Mr. Obama and members of Congress from both parties agreed to invest several hundred million dollars into Central America with the hope of improving the courts, diminishing the cartels and improving economic conditions.

Mr. Trump cut that spending, arguing that it was a waste of money, before restoring some of it. But Mr. Biden’s team is betting that even more investment will produce results. In Honduras, for example, the country’s coffee production has been hurt by hurricanes and slumping prices for coffee beans, driving many people into poverty.

But helping to reverse those kinds of economic trends could take years.

“When the president talks about ‘root causes,’ some of this is immediate humanitarian aid, but a lot of it is policy and aid together, making sure that you tackle the root causes of migration,” Ms. Jacobson said. “Otherwise, what you see is continued cycles.”

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President Biden Faces Challenge From Surge of Migrants at the Border

WASHINGTON — Thousands of migrant children are backed up in United States detention facilities along the border with Mexico, part of a surge of immigration from Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence that could overwhelm President Biden’s attempt to create a more humane approach to those seeking entry into the country.

The number of migrant children in custody along the border has tripled in the past two weeks to more than 3,250, according to federal immigration agency documents obtained by The New York Times, and many of them are being held in jail-like facilities for longer than the three days allowed by law.

The problem for the administration is both the number of children crossing the border and what to do with them once they are in custody. Under the law, the children are supposed to be moved to shelters run by the Health and Human Services Department, but because of the pandemic the shelters until last week were limiting how many children they could accommodate.

The growing number of unaccompanied children is just one element of an escalating problem at the border. Border agents encountered a migrant at the border about 78,000 times in January — more than double the rate at the same time a year ago and higher than in any January in a decade.

refused to call a “crisis” but could nevertheless become a potent political weapon for his Republican adversaries and upend his efforts to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants.

The president has proposed overhauling the nation’s decades-old immigration system by making it easier for asylum seekers and refugees, expanding legal pathways for foreign workers, increasing opportunities for family-based immigration and vastly reducing threats of mass deportations. His State Department announced on Monday that foreigners rejected after Jan. 20, 2020, under Mr. Trump’s travel ban could try to obtain visas without paying additional fees.

Hundreds of migrant families are also being released into the United States after being apprehended at the border, prompting predictable attacks by conservatives.

Liberal politicians are denouncing the expansion of detention facilities and railing against the continued imposition of Trump-era rules intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus from immigrants. And advocates for families separated at the border during Mr. Trump’s administration are pressuring the president to move faster to reunite them.

Together, it has put Mr. Biden on the defensive in the early days of his presidency as he attempts to demonstrate a tone very different from his predecessor’s.

The immigration system Mr. Biden envisions will take months, if not years, to be fully implemented, forcing the administration to scramble to find space for children and rely, for now, on a rule that swiftly returns adults and most families to their home countries.

For now, Mr. Biden has broken from his predecessor in not applying the pandemic emergency rule to children, meaning the United States is still responsible for caring for them until they are placed with a sponsor.

long-term detention facilities within 72 hours.

But for now, using the same pandemic rule the Trump administration did, the Biden administration has continued to turn away most migrants other than unaccompanied children.

And almost as soon as Mr. Biden came into office, top administration officials publicly sought to discourage migrants from traveling north, saying it would take time to unravel Mr. Trump’s policies. Previous public messaging campaigns, including standing up billboards in Central America to encourage migrants to stay home, have failed.

“Realistically, one is addressing a population of people that are desperate,” Mr. Mayorkas said in an interview. “It is not going to work 100 percent, but if it is effective at all, that is of momentous importance not only to what we are trying to do but for the well being of the people.”

Some families are being released into the United States. Border agents have not been able to turn away migrant families in South Texas because of a change in Mexican law that bans the detention of small children.

Administration officials point to a flurry of actions underway aimed at fixing what they say is a broken immigration system: improving communications between the Border Patrol and the health department, including whether the children being transported to the long-term centers are boys or girls; streamlining background checks for shelter employees; and vaccinating border workers against the coronavirus.

They are also accelerating efforts to get new facilities to care for children during the weeks and months that it takes to find relatives or foster parents. They are considering unused school buildings, military bases and federal facilities that could be rapidly converted into places acceptable for children.

And they are restarting a program in Central America that will allow children to apply for asylum without making the dangerous trek to the border. Mr. Trump ended the program, which Biden administration officials said would eventually reduce the flow of migrant children to the United States.

But all of that will take time. Meanwhile, officials say, they recognize that the pressure on Mr. Biden will only increase.

“At every step of the way we’re looking at where are the bottlenecks and then trying to eliminate those bottlenecks and yes it won’t be solved by tomorrow,” said Esther Olavarria, the deputy director for immigration at the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. “But if you don’t start to do each of these things, you are never going to solve the problem.”

Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.

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Biden Faces Challenge From Surge of Migrants at the Border

WASHINGTON — Thousands of migrant children are backed up in United States detention facilities along the border with Mexico, part of a surge of immigration from Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence that could overwhelm President Biden’s attempt to create a more humane approach to those seeking entry into the country.

The number of migrant children in custody along the border has tripled in the past two weeks to more than 3,250, according to federal immigration agency documents obtained by The New York Times, and many of them are being held in jail-like facilities for longer than the three days allowed by law.

The problem for the administration is both the number of children crossing the border and what to do with them once they are in custody. Under the law, the children are supposed to be moved to shelters run by the Health and Human Service Department, but because of the pandemic the shelters until last week were limiting how many children they could accommodate.

The growing number of unaccompanied children is just one element of an escalating problem at the border. Border agents encountered a migrant at the border about 78,000 times in January — more than double the rate at the same time a year ago and higher than in any January in a decade.

refused to call a “crisis” but could nevertheless become a potent political weapon for his Republican adversaries and upend his efforts to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants.

The president has proposed overhauling the nation’s decades-old immigration system by making it easier for asylum seekers and refugees, expanding legal pathways for foreign workers, increasing opportunities for family-based immigration and vastly reducing threats of mass deportations. His State Department announced on Monday that foreigners rejected after Jan. 20, 2020, under Mr. Trump’s travel ban could try to obtain visas without paying additional fees.

Hundreds of migrant families are also being released into the United States after being apprehended at the border, prompting predictable attacks by conservatives.

Liberal politicians are denouncing the expansion of detention facilities and railing against the continued imposition of Trump-era rules intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus from immigrants. And advocates for families separated at the border during Mr. Trump’s administration are pressuring the president to move faster to reunite them.

Together, it has put Mr. Biden on the defensive in the early days of his presidency as he attempts to demonstrate a tone very different from his predecessor’s.

The immigration system Mr. Biden envisions will take months, if not years, to be fully implemented, forcing the administration to scramble to find space for children and rely, for now, on a rule that swiftly returns adults and most families to their home countries.

For now, Mr. Biden has broken from his predecessor in not applying the pandemic emergency rule to children, meaning the United States is still responsible for caring for them until they are placed with a sponsor.

long-term detention facilities within 72 hours.

But for now, using the same pandemic rule the Trump administration did, the Biden administration has continued to turn away most migrants other than unaccompanied children.

And almost as soon as Mr. Biden came into office, top administration officials publicly sought to discourage migrants from traveling north, saying it would take time to unravel Mr. Trump’s policies. Previous public messaging campaigns, including standing up billboards in Central America to encourage migrants to stay home, have failed.

“Realistically, one is addressing a population of people that are desperate,” Mr. Mayorkas said in an interview. “It is not going to work 100 percent, but if it is effective at all, that is of momentous importance not only to what we are trying to do but for the well being of the people.”

Some families are being released into the United States. Border agents have not been able to turn away migrant families in South Texas because of a change in Mexican law that bans the detention of small children.

Administration officials point to a flurry of actions underway aimed at fixing what they say is a broken immigration system: improving communications between the Border Patrol and the health department, including whether the children being transported to the long-term centers are boys or girls; streamlining background checks for shelter employees; and vaccinating border workers against the coronavirus.

They are also accelerating efforts to get new facilities to care for children during the weeks and months that it takes to find relatives or foster parents. They are considering unused school buildings, military bases and federal facilities that could be rapidly converted into places acceptable for children.

And they are restarting a program in Central America that will allow children to apply for asylum without making the dangerous trek to the border. Mr. Trump ended the program, which Biden administration officials said would eventually reduce the flow of migrant children to the United States.

But all of that will take time. Meanwhile, officials say, they recognize that the pressure on Mr. Biden will only increase.

“At every step of the way we’re looking at where are the bottlenecks and then trying to eliminate those bottlenecks and yes it won’t be solved by tomorrow,” said Esther Olavarria, the deputy director for immigration at the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. “But if you don’t start to do each of these things, you are never going to solve the problem.”

Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.

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