For decades, single young men, mainly from Mexico and later Central America, did their best to sneak past U.S. border agents to reach Los Angeles, Atlanta and other places hungry for their labor.
Today, people from around the globe are streaming across the southern border, most of them just as eager to work. But rather than trying to elude U.S. authorities, the overwhelming majority of migrants seek out border agents, sometimes waiting hours or days in makeshift encampments, to surrender.
Being hustled into a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle and taken to a processing facility is hardly a setback. In fact, it is a crucial step toward being able to apply for asylum — now the surest way for migrants to stay in the United States, even if few will ultimately win their cases.
We are living in an era of mass migration — fueled by conflict, climate change, poverty and political repression and encouraged by the proliferation of TikTok and YouTube videos chronicling migrants’ journeys to the United States. Some six million Venezuelans have fled their troubled country, the largest population displacement in Latin America’s modern history. Migrants from Africa, Asia and South America are mortgaging their family land, selling their cars or borrowing money from loan sharks to embark on long, often treacherous journeys to reach the United States.
In December alone, more than 300,000 people crossed the southern border, a record number.
It is not just because they believe they will be able to make it across the 2,000 mile southern frontier. They are also certain that once they make it to the United States they will be able to stay.
And by and large, they are not wrong.
The United States is trying to run an immigration system with a fraction of the judges, asylum officers, interpreters and other personnel that it needs to handle the hundreds of thousands of migrants crossing the border and flocking to cities around the country each year. That dysfunction has made it impossible for the nation to expeditiously decide who can remain in the country and who should be sent back to their homeland.
“I don’t know anyone who has been deported,” Carolina Ortiz, a migrant from Colombia, said in an interview in late December at an encampment outside Jacumba Hot Springs, about 60 miles southeast of San Diego and a stone’s throw from the hulking rust-colored barrier that separates the United States from Mexico.
For most migrants, the United States still represents the land of opportunity. Many come seeking work, and they are going to do whatever it takes to work, even if that means filing a weak asylum claim, several lawyers said.
To qualify for asylum, applicants must convince a judge that returning to their home country would result in harm or death on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
Ms. Ortiz, 40, said she intended to apply for asylum based on violence in Colombia. Her chances of winning are slim, because violence alone typically does not meet the standard for persecution. Even so, she will be shielded from deportation while her claim is pending and will qualify for a work permit.
Underfunded immigration courts that adjudicate claims are strained by the swelling caseload, so applications languish for years, and all the while, migrants are building lives in the United States.
Ms. Ortiz, a nurse, said she had borrowed “millions,” in Colombian pesos (several thousand dollars) to pay the smugglers who brought her to the doorstep of the United States, a gap in the wall championed by former President Donald J. Trump. She waited two days in the cold, desert winds lashing her tent, for agents to come and take her.
When agents showed up, they transported Ms. Ortiz to a facility where she was given paperwork that said she had entered the country illegally, had been placed in deportation proceedings and must appear before an immigration judge.
The court date was Feb. 19, 2026.
She was then released. In Ms. Ortiz’s mind, everything was going according to plan. “I wanted to do everything the right way,” she said, after arriving in Colorado a few days later. She had been assigned an “alien” number used to track immigration cases.
Most asylum claims are ultimately rejected. But even when that happens, years down the road, applicants are highly unlikely to be deported. With millions of people unlawfully in the country, U.S. deportation officers prioritize arresting and expelling people who have committed serious crimes and pose a threat to public safety.
Nearly 2.5 million people crossed the southern border in fiscal year 2023, more than live in most U.S. cities. That has made the border an ever more contentious issue, for mayors and governors grappling with large influxes of migrants, and for Republican leaders eager to lay the blame at the foot of President Biden as he campaigns for re-election.
Mike Johnson, the Republican speaker of the House, has insisted that nothing should be more important to the United States than securing the border. “We must insist — must insist — that the border be the top priority,” Mr. Johnson told reporters earlier this month after a meeting with President Biden and other congressional leaders.
The president has signaled a willingness to agree to most Republican demands, though the prospects for a deal diminished last week after Mr. Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, expressed vociferous opposition to the terms.
But some proponents of tougher enforcement say that a crackdown at the border is not enough.
“We do need more boots on the ground. We do need more border infrastructure,” said Michael Neifach, a border security expert who was principal legal adviser to Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the George W. Bush administration.
“But you can’t fix this by just doing that,” he said. “We need to understand that the border is not the end of it.”
The U.S. immigration system has not undergone an overhaul in almost 40 years. And it has been a decade since Republicans and Democrats in Congress last engaged in serious negotiations to try to make top-to-bottom changes to the system.
Instead, stoking concern over immigration has become a vital part of the political playbook for Mr. Trump and many Republican leaders. They call for increasing enforcement at the border but say little about the rest of the ossified, broken immigration system.
“Politicians want to fund border patrol agents, fencing and other visible aspects of border enforcement,” said Doris Meissner, director of the U.S. immigration policy program at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
“But until resources are bolstered for other immigration functions, the border problem cannot be solved,” said Ms. Meissner, a former chief of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Over the last 13 years, Congress has substantially increased funding for Customs and Border Protection, to $21.7 billion in fiscal year 2023 from $8 billion in 2006.
But less visible components of the immigration system have not seen commensurate investment. And with the asylum process now the de facto system for so many of the people unlawfully entering the United States, a shortage of asylum officers, immigration judges and deportation officers has far-reaching consequences.
Republicans in Congress have held up approving more aid to Ukraine and Israel until Democrats agree to more funding for the border. As part of its $110 billion aid request to Congress, the Biden administration is seeking $14 billion to add both more agents along the border and more people to process and decide asylum claims. But the fate of negotiations is uncertain, and even if a deal is reached, experts say the additional resources will still fall well short.
In a functioning system, most migrants seeking asylum would be interviewed at the border to assess whether they have a credible fear of persecution if they were forced to return to their home countries. It is intended as the first step in the asylum process, and migrants who are found to lack a credible claim can be swiftly deported.
About 500 such interviews are being conducted a day — more than ever. But those represent only a fraction of the migrants who arrive — often 5,000 or more. Most people crossing the border never undergo that initial screening. They are released with a court date in a city, often years in the future.
If migrants tell judges they had been living in desperate poverty and came to the United States in search of work, the migrants could be rapidly deported. So migrants apply for asylum, knowing that gives them a fighting chance to stay.
Under U.S. law, asylum seekers can remain in the United States at least until their cases are concluded.
In 2012, there were 300,000 pending asylum cases in the United States. There are that many cases now in New York State alone. All told, more than three million cases are languishing in immigration courts, a million more than just a year ago.
Some 800 immigration judges are on the bench, up from about 520 in 2020. But the increase in judges came after years of inaction, and in that time the backlogs ballooned, according to TRAC, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group at Syracuse University.
Even with more judges on the bench, it can take several years for an asylum case to be decided. The Congressional Research Service has estimated that it would take about 1,000 more judges to clear the current backlog by fiscal year 2032.
“No matter how hard we work, day in and day out, the volume just keeps getting larger,” said Mimi Tsankov, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
When Dana Leigh Marks joined the immigration court in San Francisco in 1987, there were about 800 cases before every judge. By the time she retired in 2021, each judge had a caseload of about 4,000. Today, that number is about 5,000.
“It’s going to take years to unwind the backlogs unless something really dramatic is done,” Ms. Marks said, adding that making more work visas available would slash the number of asylum petitions clogging dockets.
If a decision is not rendered in 150 days, virtually impossible today, asylum applicants automatically become eligible for an employment authorization card.
Applicants from countries mired in political upheaval or run by military dictators, such as Eritrea or Myanmar, are likely to be granted asylum. But claims from many other countries are far less likely to be granted. Last year, only 4 percent of Mexican cases, 7 percent of Honduran and 29 percent of Venezuelan were granted.
Until a few years ago, Katy Chavez, an immigration lawyer in North Carolina, used to receive a handful of calls a year from people seeking her services to apply for asylum. Now she receives a couple dozen a month. Many are migrants who had fled profound economic hardships.
“They are calling because they want their work permit,” she said. “They don’t even understand what asylum is.”