San Antonio, Texas, US — Dozens of hopeful asylum seekers and refugees mill about the parking lot of a suburban strip mall on the north side of San Antonio, next door to a migration resource centre run by the southern US border city.
Most set out from homes in Ecuador and Nicaragua weeks earlier to make dangerous treks north in search of a safer, better life in the United States.
Ecuadoreans Juleisy, 19, and Fernanda, 25 – who asked that their last names not be used due to safety concerns – met along the way, avoiding kidnapping, extortion, and rape at the hands of drug cartels.
Luis Jehn, a 46-year-old father of four, flew to Ecuador from his native Dominican Republic and walked for days in the jungle before eventually reaching the US border with Mexico by bus.
Twenty-six-year-old Salvador Diaz said he made the most difficult decision of his life and left his wife and three-year-old son in Nicaragua — with the hope of someday bringing them to the US.
They are all part of a tidal wave of asylum seekers and refugees who have arrived at the US’s southern border with Mexico in the past months, fleeing economic hardship, political upheaval, and gang violence in their home countries.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported more than 2.2 million migrant “encounters” during the 2022 fiscal year, which ran from October 2021 to the end of September 2022. That is up from about 1.67 million in the 2021 fiscal year and only 400,000 the year before that.
The situation has been decades in the making, experts have said. Compelling reasons motivate people to take huge risks to come to the US, and for years, Washington has implemented prevention-through-deterrence policies that haven’t worked and have forced migrants to dangerous lengths to reach the country.
The group gathered outside the migrant resource centre in San Antonio said they waded across low parts of the Rio Grande River, which separates the US and Mexico, before presenting themselves to border officials and requesting asylum.
They stayed in NGO-run shelters near the border for about a week before being transported to the resource centre, which allows migrants to stay three days. They said they were trying to arrange transport to their various final destinations — cities around the US where they know someone — and would look for work there while waiting for US asylum proceedings.
Most said they had no other choice.
“We’re good people. We’re here to work, we don’t want anything free,” Johnathon, an Ecuadorian who asked that his last name not be used due to safety concerns, told Al Jazeera in San Antonio.
“If it were safe and there was work in my country, I would have stayed there.”
While Johnathon and the other asylum seekers were allowed into the US, many are not as lucky. As 2022 comes to an end, hundreds of people have converged on the US border with Mexico in hopes of being allowed into the country to seek asylum.
The focus of the uncertainty is a contentious, public health order known as Title 42, which was invoked in 2020 by former President Donald Trump to allow for the rapid expulsion of asylum seekers at the border. People returned to Mexico under the policy often attempt to cross again, driving up encounter statistics.
Jorge Loweree, managing director of programmes and strategy at the American Immigration Council, said the measure “is a great example of a policy that has made the problem worse”. “It’s been applied arbitrarily, inflated statistics and added to the chaos,” he told Al Jazeera.
Rights advocates have said Title 42 violates international law and exposes people to threats in Mexico, including rape and murder, but several US border states argue it is needed to prevent an even greater surge in arrivals.
US President Joe Biden, who has tried to reverse some of Trump’s harshest immigration policies, signalled that his administration would end Title 42 expulsions before backtracking and defending the practice in court.
In November, a federal judge ruled that the policy had to be rescinded.
But this month, the US Supreme Court temporarily froze that order, putting the future of Title 42 – and the lives of hundreds of people waiting along the border – in limbo as the top court decides whether to allow a group of US states to challenge its end. The policy will remain in place until at least February when the court is scheduled to hear arguments, and will rule after that.
“When people are driven by trying to build a better life and find some level of security … the idea that we can wall ourselves off from the rest of the world with these policies and the problem will go away is a farce,” Loweree said.
Republican bus campaign
While it remains unclear when a final decision on Title 42 will be issued, Republican politicians have seized on the situation at the border in a push to score political points against Democrats.
Earlier this year, the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, began sending busloads of migrants and refugees to Democratic-run cities, such as New York and Chicago, to put pressure on the federal government “to secure the border”.
On Christmas Eve, more than 100 people were bussed up from Texas and dropped off in freezing temperatures outside the Washington, DC, residence of Vice President Kamala Harris, who is spearheading US attempts to stem migration.
Other Republicans, including Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, have joined the campaign, which critics denounced as an “inhumane” political stunt.
In September, Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis also sent planes to Texas and lured almost 50 Venezuelans, including several children, onto a flight to the wealthy island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
“They were told there was a surprise present for them and that there would be jobs and housing waiting for them when they arrived,” Massachusetts immigration lawyer Rachel Self told reporters at the time.
DeSantis’ office vigorously defended the move, saying in a statement that, “Florida gave [the migrants] an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction that offered greater resources for them.”
Yet while conservatives have tended to be more likely than liberals to say immigration has a negative impact on the country, according to a 2022 Gallup poll, most agree that US immigration policy is broken. The question is how to fix it.
“The state of the southern border has been viewed as an effective and valuable political tool rather than a problem that needs to be addressed,” Loweree said. “Both sides need to come together to negotiate to change policy that is counterproductive and has been for years.”
The US has the space and employment opportunities to be more generous, said Elissa Steglich, co-director of the Immigration Clinic at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law. “We could devote more resources to the problem and respond in a more humane way,” Steglich told Al Jazeera.
That was echoed by Brad Jones, a political science professor at UC Davis, who urged the Biden administration to drop the US’s longstanding policy of deterrence in favour of more humane measures on immigration.
“Issue more visas, lift immigration quotas, better fund immigration courts,” he said. “But the issue has become so politicised that I don’t see that happening.
“It’s a pressure cooker ready to explode.”