When President Joe Biden arrived in El Paso on Sunday afternoon on his first trip to the border as president, he landed in hostile territory. Soon after Air Force One touched down, Governor Greg Abbott met the president on the tarmac to hand-deliver a one-page letter that blamed Biden for the “chaos” along the Texas border and demanded more strident immigration policies. Biden, according to Abbott, accepted the letter cordially. “He said he wanted to work with us on it,” Abbott told reporters at the airport, over the drone of jet engines. 

During his visit, Biden would get a curated tour of the “chaos” Abbott spoke of. In the weeks before the president arrived, dozens of immigrants and asylum-seekers in the city, including families with young children, had slept out on the streets in freezing temperatures. By the time Biden drove into El Paso, many had been shuffled out of sight: Border Patrol officers removed migrants from visible downtown areas late last week. (Agency officials told local journalists that the sweeps of encampments were unconnected to the president’s visit.) Once in town, the president met with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, who showed him how they search vehicles for contraband. Then he walked down a stretch of the border barrier. The president visited the El Paso County Migrant Services Center and met with local nonprofit leaders. At one point during his visit, Biden took Abbott’s letter out of his jacket pocket and showed it to reporters. “I haven’t read it yet,” he said.  

While many Biden critics decried his visit as a photo op, the president’s arrival on the border came in the immediate wake of a significant crackdown on asylum-seekers announced by his administration. Last week, Biden announced that migrants arriving on the border from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, and Haiti—some of the most common countries of origin for those arriving on the Texas border during the last several months—would be immediately pushed back into Mexico under Title 42, a public health statute employed by the Trump administration to expel migrants, starting at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. “My message is this: If you’re trying to leave Cuba, Nicaragua, or Haiti, have agreed to begin a journey to America, do not—do not—just show up at the border,” Biden said in a speech from the White House on Thursday. He also announced he was resurrecting a controversial Trump-era policy that critics refer to as a “transit ban,” which blocks individuals from applying for asylum in the United States if they traveled through third countries where they could have otherwise applied for asylum. The new restrictions seem to have done little to satisfy Biden’s critics on the left or the right. Abbott called the new policies, and Biden’s visit to the border, “two years and about twenty billion dollars too late.” 

While Biden has frequently avoided mentioning the border during public speeches, developments during the past month seem to have forced his hand. Texas border cities are experiencing a level of strain not seen since the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s, when tens of thousands of refugees crossed the border fleeing persecution and violence. Today El Paso, in particular, has found itself overwhelmed by the historic number of asylum-seekers arriving in the city at once. Beyond the endemic poverty that has long encouraged migrants to seek a better life in the U.S., Latin America is in the midst of multiple historic crises. Nicaraguans and Venezuelans are fleeing increasingly repressive authoritarian regimes. Cubans are fleeing a historic economic depression. Haitians are leaving behind a collapsed government and widespread gang violence. Mexicans are escaping civil war–like cartel battles. Guatemalans are leaving behind crop failure and drought. Peruvians are fleeing a constitutional crisis. 

As such, rates of immigration across the border remained at all-time highs throughout 2022, a year in which the number of migrants encountered by Border Patrol topped 2 million for the first time ever. West Texas has seen repeated waves of immigration during Biden’s presidency, most famously when 15,000 migrants, mostly from Haiti, arrived at the Del Rio border crossing in a matter of days in September 2021. It’s hard to know for certain why so many migrants often arrive at the same place at the same time, but, during the current crisis, El Paso officials have speculated that it’s because the Rio Grande runs at a lower level in the city and is safer to cross during the winter, when temperatures in the surrounding deserts are cooler. 

In normal times—under Biden, Trump, and other presidents—asylum-seekers who present themselves to Border Patrol are often paroled, instead of detained, as they await their asylum hearing dates. (Seeking refuge in America, after all, is not a crime.) Over the last decade, 83 percent of these asylum-seekers have appeared for their hearings. CBP normally coordinates with local shelters and nonprofits to make sure the asylum-seekers agents drop off have somewhere to go once they’re released. But in El Paso, CBP has run out of manpower to handle the increased migration—for some stretches, an average of 2,500 migrants have arrived per day—and has paroled tens of thousands of migrants into the city’s downtown. The system for sheltering and transporting asylum-seekers to other destinations in the country, already tenuous, has broken down. In lieu of support from the federal government, local officials have struggled to shelter asylum-seekers, and there aren’t enough seats on buses and planes for asylum-seekers to travel elsewhere, where relatives or other sponsors might house them.

CBP has increasingly dropped thousands of asylum-seekers off at bus stops or even gas stations without instructions or travel arrangements. Mike D’Agostino, El Paso’s deputy city manager, observed that “there’s a lot of people on the streets of El Paso without anywhere to go, not knowing the terrain—not knowing even where they’re at.”

While El Paso has long been a welcoming city to immigrants, the sheer number of travelers has buried the modest-sized city’s limited infrastructure. Opinion there is split. A strong and deep-rooted pro-immigrant community marched in protest of Biden’s new policies as the president toured El Paso on Sunday. But many other residents have said they fear crime and disorder as dozens of asylum-seekers and at-times desperate migrants crowd the city’s downtown. And that fear is shared by Texans in other parts of the state.

The crisis—and the resulting public relations mess—has forced an evolution of the Biden administration’s approach to immigration. Taking office as a president who promised to reform the asylum system and embrace immigrants, Biden has, two years later, resurrected some of Donald Trump’s most strident border policies. The president’s message to Abbott, about working together, could be earnest. With Biden’s visit to El Paso, his administration is signaling that it is ready to fully embrace deterrence-first immigration policy. 

In El Paso, Dylan Corbett has had a unique window into this rightward shift in the Biden administration’s immigration policy. He’s the executive director of the Hope Border Institute, a Catholic immigrant-advocacy organization based in El Paso and its sister city across the border, Ciudad Juárez. Corbett followed the Biden campaign closely, watching the then-candidate speak of a humane and warm welcome for immigrants and asylum-seekers. He recalls Biden promising to end Trump’s notorious “Remain in Mexico” plan, a policy officially named the Migrant Protection Protocols, under which Border Patrol forced thousands of asylum-seekers back into Mexico to await their asylum court dates south of the border. Many ended up living in squalor for years in northern Mexican cities, and advocacy groups recorded hundreds of incidents of murder, rape, kidnapping, and robbery against asylum-seekers stuck there.  

A source familiar with closed-door conversations among members of Biden’s campaign team says that during the election campaign, officials would speak about abandoning deterrence-based immigration policy, citing the dearth of evidence that such policies actually worked. Experts who study migration patterns point out that most migrants and asylum-seekers on the border have little to no knowledge about U.S. immigration policy and are often motivated more by “push factors” in their home countries than by “pull factors” in the U.S. Estuardo Cifuentes, who left Guatemala in 2019 to seek asylum in the U.S. and is now helping asylum-seekers in El Paso with their cases as an employee of the legal nonprofit Lawyers for Good Government, explains some of why that might be. “From my own experience migrating, I know that migrants hear very little about U.S. immigration policy,” Cifuentes says.

After Biden was sworn in, White House officials began coordinating with nonprofit leaders, including Corbett in El Paso, building out the infrastructure and planning to absorb thousands of asylum-seekers waiting in northern Mexico under the Remain in Mexico policy. Corbett says that when Biden announced the end of the program in June of 2021, shelters were prepared with beds and social workers were ready at crossings to help asylum-seekers purchase bus and plane tickets. “It set up a really good precedent for coordination,” Corbett says. “It got the whole border involved. Local governments, Border Patrol, all the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] on both sides of the border—we all coordinated to make sure we had the mechanisms in place to bring back people who had been placed in the Remain in Mexico plan. And it worked—I think we had more than eight thousand people return, and it was safe, efficient, and uncontroversial.” 

Then, as Biden neared six months in office, Corbett noticed that something was beginning to change. The White House began reaching out to nonprofits less and less; the messaging got more hostile. To Corbett, it looked like the administration had gotten “cold feet.” 

During Biden’s first year in office, the number of immigrants encountered by Border Patrol began to increase rapidly, and the president was hammered daily, especially by right-wing news outlets. As midterm season neared, polls began to show worrying trends: in Texas, for instance, polling found that over 30 percent of independents ranked immigration or border security as Texas’s “most important problem,” a substantial increase from the fall of 2020, when just 11 percent of independents ranked it that way. In border communities, such as Eagle Pass and McAllen, residents who had long held welcoming attitudes to immigrants began to find their attitudes complicated when asylum-seekers arrived in their towns at record numbers. It motivated some voters and even elected officials in South Texas to change parties, from the Democratic party to the GOP.

This negative press ushered in new attitudes in the West Wing. Figures high up in the administration, most notably domestic policy adviser Susan Rice and chief of staff Ron Klain, began pushing officials to focus on deterrence. The officials in charge of winding down the MPP began to face internal pushback. Some powerful figures in the administration even began to argue that the Remain in Mexico plan ought to remain in place, according to the source involved with early Biden administration discussions. 

In August of 2021, those figures were handed a gift. In response to a lawsuit filed by Texas, a federal judge in Amarillo ruled that Biden’s rollback of the MPP did not comply with the Administrative Procedure Act. The court ordered the administration to keep the program in place. The administration’s response to that ruling was telling: while the White House mounted a legal defense arguing that it should be allowed to end the MPP, the administration also announced that it would expand the program to include asylum-seekers of more nationalities. (Outraged at the administration’s willingness not just to continue the Remain in Mexico plan, but also to expand it, some high-ranking immigration officials began to resign.)

In places like El Paso, immigrant advocates were dismayed to see the MPP remain in place. However, they maintained hope that Biden would still roll back other Trump-era policies: most notably, Title 42. During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration had used the obscure federal statute from the 1940s, which gives the president the extraordinary ability to block the entry of foreigners into the country to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, as an effective asylum ban. When Biden took office, he was widely expected to revoke the order. 

After expelling more than two million migrants under the order, Biden announced he’d end it, but before Title 42 was set to expire on December 21, the Supreme Court issued an injunction at the eleventh hour. Now, just weeks later, the administration once again doesn’t seem at all enthusiastic about fighting that injunction, and instead has announced a significant expansion of the program. Under Trump, Title 42 was rarely used to expel Cubans, Venezuelans, or Nicaraguans—largely because those authoritarian countries, hostile to the U.S., often do not accept deportation flights. Now Biden has expanded the order to expel citizens of those countries into Mexico, angering Mexican officials.

The changes in the White House’s immigration policy reflect a sort of balancing act. The administration remains concerned about taking heat from its left flank. Last week, in advance of announcing the new restrictions, White House officials were dispatched to meet with prominent Democrats—including New Jersey senator Bob Menendez and Washington congresswoman Pramila Jayapal—beseeching them to publicly support the president’s new policies. One concession to the left was a plan, also announced last week, to allow as many as 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans apply for humanitarian visas from their home countries, instead of at the border. 

The White House’s entreaties didn’t work. In a joint statement following Biden’s announcement, Menendez, along with senators Cory Booker, of New Jersey, Ben Ray Luján, of New Mexico, and Alex Padilla, of California, decried the new policies. “While we understand the challenges the nation is facing at the Southern border exacerbated by Republican obstruction to modernizing our immigration system, we are deeply disappointed by the Biden Administration’s decision to expand the use of Title 42. Continuing to use this failed and inhumane Trump-era policy put in place to address a public health crisis will do nothing to restore the rule of law at the border,” the senators wrote. 

In El Paso, Corbett had a similar reaction. “The new policies have some good elements, definitely: there are opportunities that some people will be able to access,” he says. “But I’m worried that [Biden] is returning the previous administration’s embrace of Title 42 as a deterrence mechanism, as a border management tool, and that’s really bad.” 

Across the political spectrum, almost everyone agrees that fixing the U.S.’s broken immigration system will require a major act from Congress and a thorough overhaul of laws politicians have not managed to significantly change in decades. Any individual president has limited powers to address the burgeoning crisis. But Corbett says that Biden could take steps to reduce the strain on cities such as El Paso without imposing new restrictions on immigration, just as the president did when rolling back the MPP. Federal, state, and local governments once again could work in close coordination with nonprofits to help asylum-seekers swiftly travel elsewhere in the country’s interior, where most of them have family members or sponsors ready to assist them. “I hope that in El Paso the president sees a community that has been involved in the work of welcoming the vulnerable for decades,” Corbett says. “And this is something that we shouldn’t be afraid of.” 

It remains to be seen whether Biden’s new policies targeting Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans will have the desired effect of slowing rates of border crossings. The parole program Biden created, which will only allow a maximum of 30,000 asylum-seekers to apply for relief from their home countries, would aid only a tiny fraction of those trying to leave. Tens of thousands of asylum-seekers are already in northern Mexico waiting to cross, and thousands more are already making the journey northward. And once asylum-seekers and migrants arrive on the border and do learn of Biden’s new policies, there’s reason to believe that won’t stop many from crossing, but rather will encourage them to do so irregularly and not present themselves to Border Patrol for asylum. 

Corbett says the strongest evidence that the administration’s deterrence-based policies won’t work is the number of Venezuelans sleeping on the streets in El Paso right now. In October, Biden announced a Title 42 expansion targeting Venezuelans specifically. It opened the option for a limited number of Venezuelans to apply for asylum in their home countries, but subjected them to expulsion if they tried to cross the border.  When distributing fact sheets in support of its newest policy, which expands analogous programs to Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua, the White House said that its Venezuela program had been a success: the number of Venezuelans crossing the border and surrendering to Border Patrol to plead asylum has dropped significantly, according to the administration’s numbers. 

In El Paso’s downtown, however, Venezuelans are everywhere. Unable to ask for asylum, they’ve simply crossed without surrendering themselves to Border Patrol and are now living undocumented in the U.S. It’s extremely difficult to travel northward from El Paso without crossing CBP checkpoints along the roads, so they are filling shelters and sleeping on the streets. The next few weeks will reveal whether Biden’s deterrence policies will help El Paso—or simply see Nicaraguans, Haitians, and Cubans join these Venezuelans.