You’ve probably heard about Title 42, the policy under which the Trump administration began expelling most migrants from the country last year. And as you probably know, President Biden has continued enforcement of Title 42 and, as of this week, still hasn’t set a date at which he’ll stop using it to return people who enter to Mexico.
Today the LA Times published a pretty harrowing account of the ways in which groups of kidnappers have capitalized on Title 42. An immigration attorney quoted in the story calls it ” a gold rush for human smugglers.”
Because the U.S. is sending people, especially single adults back across the border within a matter of hours, the kidnappers have a steady stream of new targets. They select anyone who has U.S. phone numbers in their call log.
Criminal groups know that most migrants quickly expelled at the border, particularly families, have U.S. relatives who presumably can pay more. The kidnappers go through their phones looking for U.S. numbers, according to Julia Neusner of Human Rights First.
“Title 42 just leaves a bunch of sitting ducks for organized crime,” Neusner said.
Once they’ve picked a victim, the kidnappers demand money from the U.S. relatives and threaten to harm the victim unless they get it. Often this is tens of thousands of dollars. And because this is happening on the Mexican side of the border, U.S. authorities aren’t usually involved. It’s a perfect cross-border crime and plenty lucrative if you’re living in Mexico and don’t have a problem with holding women and children against their will.
The LA Times story focuses on one family to whom this recently happened but part of the story here is not just Title 42, but the ways in which the Biden administration has incentivized certain behavior which makes this more likely:
On March 24, Tani and her son crossed the Rio Grande in Reynosa, Mexico, across from McAllen, Texas, seeking out Border Patrol to claim asylum, according to Cruz Caceres and the lawyers. Tani’s husband would cross separately; they’d been told mothers with young children had a better chance.
Adults know that kids can enter and that women with young children often aren’t turned away. But in this case, Tani was unlucky. She and her son were sent back to Mexico within a matter of hours. And because Mexican officials in Reynosa aren’t accepting the return of all of the migrants who cross the border in the Rio Grande region, ICE has been taking them by plane to other cities. So in Tani’s case she wound up back in Mexico 160 miles away from where she’d crossed and that’s where the kidnappers got her and her son. She’d have been a less appealing target if her husband had been with her but again, self-separation of families is the incentive Biden’s policies have created.
Tani’s older sister, who was in the minority of migrants who had actually been granted asylum, eventually paid the kidnappers enough money that she and her son were released. The Times reports they were granted “humanitarian parole” and were allowed to travel to Tennessee to join her sister. Tani isn’t worried about being forced to leave because she’s pregnant and will give birth to her next son here in the U.S.
This is what the migrants know that rarely gets mentioned in news stories: Once you make it across the border and into the interior of the U.S., you’ll almost never have to leave. There’s a prize that justifies all of this insane risk-taking including paying smugglers and kidnappers. We can try to battle those systems that crop up to profit off this situation but as long as the prize is still there, as long as the border is effectively open to families and to children, people will keep taking those risks.
What the LA Times story doesn’t discuss is what the alternative to the Title 42 expulsions should be. Biden could end them tomorrow and he’d get a round of applause from the left, but it would be tantamount to inviting Central Americans to redouble their efforts to get here and claim asylum. Most of those claims would eventually be denied but most of the people who made them would stay anyway because that’s how the system presently works.
We seem to have a choice between the awful system we have now, one which unfortunately rewards smugglers and kidnappers, and what amounts to wide open borders for anyone who has learned how to pass a “credible fear” interview. Biden and his team clearly know that doing away with Title 42 could make the current border surge look like it was a warm up act. So for now they’re sticking to Trump’s policy because the alternative has the potential to consume his presidency.