SASABE, Ariz. — By the time the Border Patrol spotted the two migrants in a tangle of shrubs on a frigid December morning, they had been meandering aimlessly in the desert for six days. They had lost their way on the final leg of a monthlong journey from Guatemala, encountering only herds of javelinas, lone coyotes and skin-piercing cactuses as they staggered north. Exhausted, thirsty and cold, they did not resist arrest.
Less than two hours later, agents had already processed them and deposited them back across the border in Mexico. Alfonso Mena, his jeans ripped at the knee, shivered with his companion on a bench less than 300 yards from Arizona and sobbed uncontrollably.
“What wouldn’t you do to help your children get ahead?” he said. A landscaping job in Houston awaited him, he said, and his family was counting on him. “We are not bad people. We come to work.”
It was not the first time he had tried to enter the United States. And it was unlikely to be the last.
Unauthorized entries are swelling in defiance of the lockdown President Trump imposed on the border during the pandemic and shaping up as the first significant challenge to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s pledge to adopt a more compassionate policy along America’s 1,100-mile border with Mexico.
After a steep decline in border crossings through much of this year, interceptions of unauthorized migrants along the Arizona-Mexico border are climbing again: Detentions in October were up 30 percent over September, and the figure in coming months is expected be even higher, despite the biting cold in the Sonoran desert.
The rising numbers suggest that the Trump administration’s expulsion policy, an emergency measure to halt spread of the coronavirus, is encouraging migrants to make repeated tries, in ever-more-remote locations, until they succeed in crossing the frontier undetected.
And they are likely the leading edge of a much more substantial surge toward the border, immigration analysts say, as a worsening economy in Central America, the disaster wrought by Hurricanes Eta and Iota and expectations of a more lenient U.S. border policy drive ever-larger numbers toward the United States.
New migrant caravans formed in Honduras in recent weeks, defying that country’s coronavirus-related lockdown in a bid to head toward the United States but were prevented from leaving the country. And the pandemic has decimated livelihoods in Mexico, prompting a rise in migration from that country after a 15-year decline.
“The pressures that have caused flows in the past have not abated and, in fact, have gotten worse because of the pandemic. If there is a perception of more-humane policies, you are likely to see an increase of arrivals at the border,” said T. Alexander Aleinikoff, director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at the New School in New York.
“That doesn’t mean that those flows cannot be adequately handled with a comprehensive set of policies that are quite different from Trump’s,” said Mr. Aleinikoff, “but you need a well-functioning bureaucracy to handle it.”
Mr. Biden has vowed to begin undoing the “damage” inflicted by the Trump administration’s border policies. He has said he will end a program that has returned tens of thousands of asylum seekers to Mexico and restore the country’s historical role as a safe haven for people fleeing persecution.
But swiftly reversing Trump administration policies could be construed as opening the floodgates, risking a rush to the border that could quickly devolve into a humanitarian crisis.
Confronted with soaring numbers of families and unaccompanied children fleeing Central America, the Trump administration, saying that migrants were exploiting the asylum system to gain entry into the United States, rolled out a series of punitive deterrence measures.
After the brutal 2018 “zero-tolerance” policy that separated children from their parents, the Trump administration last year introduced the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “return to Mexico,” forcing some 67,000 asylum seekers to await their immigration hearings on the southern side of the border.
The policy stranded people in squalid, gang-controlled makeshift camps. But it had the intended outcome of significantly reducing flows and compelling thousands of migrants already at the border to turn around and go home.
Because the “return to Mexico” policy is not codified by regulation, it could be immediately rescinded by the president-elect.
But the optics of large numbers of migrants suddenly being waved into the United States, or detained in facilities at the border, would create a public-relations nightmare for the new administration and almost certainly draw fierce condemnation from both immigration restrictionists and pro-immigrant activists, for different reasons.
“The new administration is going to have to find a way to push back on unrestrained, unauthorized migration with humane enforcement while dealing with people seeking asylum in an expeditious way that recognizes their legitimate claims,” said Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security during the Bush administration.
“It’s not going to be 10 minutes after inauguration, everybody come on in,” said Mr. Chertoff.
Any misstep would threaten a replay of 2014 and 2016, when the Obama administration scrambled to stem a chaotic influx of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Human-rights groups were outraged when families and children were locked up and deportations were accelerated. Immigration hard-liners attacked Mr. Obama for allowing tens of thousands to enter the United States and remain in the country while their asylum cases wound through the courts, which can take years.
And while Mr. Biden has said that he will cease construction of a wall, Mr. Trump’s signature project, there is no sign that his administration will refrain from deploying boots on the ground and sophisticated technology to capture border crossers.
To triage asylum requests swiftly and efficiently would require more judges. Those whose claims lack merit would need to be swiftly deported. Social workers, rather than border agents, could be enlisted to deal with children crossing the border. There is also talk of establishing a case-management program to ensure that families will show up for their court hearings.
The Biden administration will seek to ameliorate conditions in Central America and to enlist Mexican cooperation. In 2015, the former vice president secured bipartisan support for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to those countries, assistance then mostly frozen by Mr. Trump, and he has promised to tackle “the root causes that push desperate people to flee their homes in the first place.”
Yet the incoming administration has been silent on Title 42, the public-health emergency law that the Trump administration invoked to justify the immediate expulsion of unauthorized migrants to their last country of transit. Since its implementation in March, some 300,000 migrants, including many of those crossing recently in Arizona, have been expelled.
The order, ironically, has fueled a spike in migrants trying to sneak into the United States. Being dropped off at the border station, rather than deported and flown back to their home countries, creates an easy opportunity to try again.
Along the perilous migrant corridor in Arizona, where temperatures dipped to 27 degrees last weekend, Border Patrol agents responded to 10 separate 911 calls from migrants, rescuing more than two dozen men, women and children, including three toddlers.
“Before, everybody was just turning themselves in,” said John Mennell, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in Arizona. “Now they are back to running and hiding. Those are the people who are going to get lost. Smugglers abandon them; they lose cellphone coverage and they run until they can’t anymore.”
The medical examiner for Pima County, which covers the most treacherous expanse, has recovered the bodies of 216 migrants so far this year, the highest number in a decade and the second-highest since records have been kept starting in 2000.
Gregory Hess, the chief medical examiner and forensic pathologist, said many of the regions where people cross are unforgiving. “If something goes wrong and you run out of water, food or whatever, it’s not like you can live off the environment. There is not a river that is flowing,” he said.
During six nights in the desert, Mr. Mena and his travel companion, Diego Palux, curled up in dry arroyos to sleep, which helped to protect them from the frigid wind that whipped up the earth and debris around them, they said.
They had borrowed money to hire coyotes, smugglers who charge as much as $15,000 to guide migrants through the rugged terrain and rocky mountains, to reach the United States. But they had lost their way in the cactus-dotted expanse that stretched to the horizon. By the time agents found them, they had no food or water in their camouflage backpacks.
But within two hours, they were back in Mexico, among about 100 migrants who had been apprehended near Sasabe.
In Guatemala, the peasants had struggled to provide for their children cutting sugar cane. Mr. Palux had made it to Mississippi in 2018, where he worked at a poultry plant until he was deported last year. Mr. Mena had spent six months in a detention center near Phoenix after being caught at the border the same year.
They sat on a bench beside another Guatemalan, Samuel Alexander, 28, who rested his swollen, blistery right foot on his shoe. Thugs in his village had threatened to kill his family unless he paid them “commission” to keep operating a little eatery, he said. To spare their lives, he had closed the business and headed north, holding the unrealistic hope that, if captured, border agents would let him into the United States after hearing his story.
“The officers didn’t care,” he said, weeping. “They told me I can’t ask for asylum because of the pandemic.”
The migrants devoured chicken sandwiches, fruit cups and cereal bars offered by two American volunteers. Dora Rodriguez, who works with a group called Tucson Samaritans, draped blank-and-white blankets on their shoulders and did not resist when Mr. Alexander reached out to hug her.
“The numbers we are seeing here don’t compare to normal times because of the pandemic, and we have been hearing from more migrants displaced by the hurricanes” said Ms. Rodriguez, who runs a humanitarian nonprofit called Salvavision.
“In people’s mind, they believe that a new administration will open the borders and give them an opportunity to stay,” said Ms. Rodriguez. “We are expecting a large number of people.”
Sasabe, a poor town of rutted, dirt roads and dilapidated adobe structures, has flourished anew as a major staging place for coyotes.
Brand-new SUVs with tinted windows roared down the roads on a recent afternoon, out of place in the forlorn town where there was barely a person outside.
In addition to canned tuna, beans and sodas, the only grocery store on the main road, aptly named “Super Coyote,” stocked camouflage shirts and trousers, backpacks and slippers as well as black water jugs for migrants facing long treks in the desert.
Every hour, it seemed, another Border Patrol van pulled up at the port of entry to expel more migrants.
Out of one vehicle emerged a slight boy in a red Nike T-shirt, scrapes on his forehead and cheeks, who looked no older than 15. The young man, Francisco Velasquez, said he hoped to make it as far as Florida to work in construction to send money to his family. “Hurricane Eta took my house,” he said. “We have nothing left.”
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