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An End-of-Year Migrant Surge
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An End-of-Year Migrant Surge

Border crossings continue to reach record levels while Washington struggles to address the crisis.

Happy Wednesday! Spirit Airlines accidentally rebooted the Home Alone movie series this holiday season when a crew member “incorrectly boarded” an unaccompanied 6-year-old boy on a flight departing from Philadelphia on December 21, sending him to Orlando instead of Fort Myers, Florida. The minor was reconnected with his family and, at least as far as we’ve heard, did not have to violently foil any robberies.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • U.S. forces launched strikes on Monday against three drone facilities used by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq in response to a series of attacks on U.S. installations in Iraq and Syria that injured three U.S. service members, leaving one in critical condition. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the strikes “necessary and proportionate,” and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) assessed they likely destroyed the facilities and killed “a number of Kataib Hezbollah militants.” Iranian-affiliated groups in Iraq and Syria have carried out dozens of attacks on U.S. troops since Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, and Monday marked the fifth U.S. military retaliation. Meanwhile, Iran claimed an Israeli airstrike in Damascus, Syria, on Monday killed Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a top general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said to be overseeing the shipment of weapons to Hezbollah, an Iran-backed terrorist group in Lebanon. Though Israeli officials did not confirm they were behind the strike, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Tuesday Israel was already “in a multifront war” and had responded in six of seven active theaters: Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran. 
  • The U.S. military reported Saturday night that Iran had fired a one-way attack drone from its territory earlier in the day, striking a Japanese-owned tanker in the Indian Ocean—the first in a recent string of attacks targeting busy shipping lanes to have allegedly come directly from Iran. The same day, the USS Laboon—an American destroyer on patrol in the Red Sea on Saturday as part of the U.S.-led maritime task force Operation Prosperity Guardian—shot down four drones fired at the ship by Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. The warship also responded to distress calls from two other vessels that suffered a hit and a near miss in the Red Sea. On Tuesday, CENTCOM said the Laboon and U.S. F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets from the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group based in the eastern Mediterranean Sea shot down more than a dozen attack drones and missiles fired by the Houthis over the southern Red Sea over a ten-hour period beginning Tuesday morning. The White House has said Iran is “deeply involved” in the escalating attacks on vessels traveling through the Red Sea—an assessment Iran’s foreign minister denied as “baseless.”
  • Hamas and its allied terror group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, on Monday reportedly rejected an Egyptian-led proposal that included their ceding of control of the Gaza Strip and a phased return of all the remaining hostages in exchange for a permanent ceasefire. The two groups reportedly rejected any concessions unrelated to the return of hostages, more than 100 of whom are still believed to be held in Gaza. It’s not clear whether Israel’s war cabinet considered the deal, which fell short of the three “prerequisites for peace” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu articulated in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Monday: “Hamas must be destroyed, Gaza must be demilitarized, and Palestinian society must be deradicalized.” The U.S. allowed a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolution, which called for additional aid to Gaza with toned-down language urging the eventual cessation of hostilities, to pass on Friday. The U.S. had vetoed several UNSC resolutions related to the war in Gaza over their insistence on a ceasefire and failure to condemn Hamas’ October 7 attack. Russia—another permanent member that, like the U.S., has veto power—abstained in protest of the softer language on a ceasefire, while the other 13 members voted in favor of the resolution. 
  • Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was located in a Siberian prison, his spokeswoman said Monday, after his lawyers and allies lost contact with him earlier this month. Russian authorities moved Navalny—serving a 19-year sentence on extremism-related charges in what a U.S. State Department spokesperson characterized as an “unjust detention”—from a prison near Moscow to a remote penal colony in northern Russia. Ivan Zhdanov, the head of Navalny’s anti-corruption organization, suggested the transfer was an attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to isolate the opposition figure ahead of Russian elections in March. 
  • Ukraine’s Air Force announced Friday it had shot down three Russian fighter-bomber aircraft in the southern part of Ukraine, marking one of the most successful operations against Russian airpower since the beginning of the war. Ukrainian military officials also claimed to have destroyed a Russian warship in an overnight attack in Crimea on Monday, sharing video of a massive explosion—though Russian state media reported the amphibious landing ship was only damaged. 
  • On Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed his forces captured the eastern city of Maryinka, which had been in Ukrainian hands since the beginning of the war. The commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, on Tuesday held his first press conference since the February 2022 invasion, saying the town—which the Russians are seeking to capture in an effort to advance further west from the city of Donetsk—had been entirely leveled, and Ukrainian troops had withdrawn to the edges of the town. In a rare acknowledgement of steep Ukrainian casualties, Zaluzhnyi also called for the mobilization of additional troops as the draft text of a bill in parliament proposed lowering the conscription age for Ukrainian men from 27 to 25.
  • In an unsigned order released on Friday, the Supreme Court declined to immediately decide whether former President Donald Trump is immune from prosecution for his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing special counsel Jack Smith’s election subversion case against Trump, ruled against the former president’s immunity claim earlier this month, leading Trump to appeal her decision. Smith asked the Supreme Court to bypass the U.S. Court of Appeals and issue an expedited decision to avoid any delays to the trial set to begin on March 4. After Friday’s ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will begin hearing arguments in the case on January 9, though its ruling will likely still reach the Supreme Court eventually.
  • President Joe Biden issued a pardon for certain offenses related to marijuana use and possession under federal and Washington, D.C., law last week, building on a more expansive pardon for marijuana offenses signed last year. Last week’s proclamation included a pardon for offenses that occurred on federal land, which was not included in the last clemency effort. No federal prisoners were eligible for release under either proclamation, but the pardons were aimed at removing barriers—like getting a job or signing a lease—associated with drug offenses. Also last week, Biden commuted the sentences of 11 people serving time for nonviolent federal drug offenses. 

Another Migrant Caravan Approaches

Migrants take part in a caravan towards the border with the United States in Tapachula, Chiapas State, Mexico, on December 24, 2023.  (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Migrants take part in a caravan towards the border with the United States in Tapachula, Chiapas State, Mexico, on December 24, 2023. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

While Christians around the world celebrated Christmas Eve this weekend, thousands of migrants gathered in Tapachula—a town in southern Mexico near the Guatemalan border—and headed north on foot. The caravan includes an estimated 7,000 people walking under a banner that reads “Exodus from poverty.” Their destination is the U.S. border, more than 1,000 miles north. 

Migrant caravans—often a cable-news flashpoint—have increased in frequency over the last five years as Central and South America struggle with a historic refugee crisis. The people on the road from Tapachula represent just a fraction of the millions of U.S.-bound migrants fleeing violence, instability, and poverty in their home countries. With apprehensions surging again, border and immigration authorities are stretched to their limits as lawmakers struggle to reach an agreement on border security.

Over the last three weeks, the number of migrants crossing the border has reached historic levels. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has reportedly encountered—meaning detained, deemed inadmissible, or expelled—more than 10,000 people per day. And those border-crossing figures are up from a record-setting autumn: CBP reported 242,418 encounters at the southern border in November, 240,986 in October, and 269,735 in September—the largest number of encounters in a single month on record. (CBP has yet to release December’s official data.) Fiscal year (FY) 2023 saw 2.48 million encounters at the southern border, exceeding last year’s all-time record of 2.38 million. For comparison, the total number of encounters in FY 2019 was 977,509.

Back in September, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the performance of his department. “Wasn’t everyone very, very concerned about 10,000, 12,000, 14,000 crossings a day?” he told reporters at the time. “We haven’t experienced that.” Fast forward two months, and it appears as though Mayorkas had spoken too soon, with border authorities experiencing those numbers on successive days. “It used to be that when there was a migration crisis, it tended to be one—maybe one source country at a time,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in October. “Maybe it was Haiti. Maybe it was Cuba. Maybe it was Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador, the so-called Northern Triangle countries. Now it’s all of the above, plus Venezuela, plus Nicaragua, plus Ecuador.”

Mayorkas, Blinken, and White House homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall will meet with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in Mexico City today to discuss border security and the surge in migrants. The trip comes after President Joe Biden and AMLO agreed last week that “additional enforcement actions” were needed, and today’s meeting will presumably determine whether concrete steps can come from that agreement.

The record levels have stretched CBP resources to the breaking point as migrants concentrate at specific points across the border. “When you have multiple sectors and you can’t decompress because the places you normally decompress to are overwhelmed, it’s untenable,” said Raul Ortiz, the former CBP chief. Earlier this month, the Biden administration closed an unusually large number of legal entry points along the southern border—including railways and bridges—in an effort to stem the tide of migrants and make more border agents available.

As we wrote in September, the Biden administration has tried “deploying a carrot-and-stick approach” to immigration, attempting to “simultaneously deter illegal crossings and incentivize migrants to follow legal pathways to apply for entry before making the treacherous journey to and across the southern border.” The legal pathways included an expanded humanitarian parole program that allowed a total of 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to apply for two-year work permits with a U.S. sponsor.

But the carrot simply hasn’t been large enough to put a meaningful dent in the high number of illegal crossings. “We’ve seen that these alternate legal pathways have had a very significant impact on some populations,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, told TMD, citing a decline in illegal entries by Cubans and Haitians as an example of the program’s tempered success. “When it comes to populations like Venezuelans, though, there’s 7 million displaced Venezuelans. Not surprisingly, what’s effectively working out to 10,000 to 12,000 visas a month is not a substantial enough program to make a significant difference.” 

With CBP overwhelmed by the surge, the stick approach—tightening rules around seeking asylum and increasing penalties for those crossing illegally—isn’t effectively deterring migrants either. “We need the capacity to put [migrants] through the process and so we can effectuate a consequence for those who should not be able to claim asylum,” Troy Miller, the acting CBP chief said earlier this month. He reiterated the call for more resources last week: “We are facing a serious challenge along the southwest border, and CBP and our federal partners need more resources from Congress.”

But some immigration policy advocates argue that funneling money into enforcement without either liberalizing immigration rules or funding asylum officers and the immigration court system will be counterproductive. There are only 659 immigration court judges and approximately 800 asylum officers—meanwhile, more than 3 million immigration cases are backlogged, an increase of 1 million cases from just a year ago. Reichlin-Melnick argued that the fastest way to deal with so many migrants crossing the border would be to significantly increase the number of asylum officers and judges assessing cases, which in turn would allow CBP to more quickly deport those who are ineligible to stay in the country. Alex Nowrasteh, a more libertarian-minded immigration policy researcher at the Cato Institute, believes that tweaking rules around eligibility and increasing penalties for migrants won’t solve the problem. “[If] you change these rules, there may be slightly fewer people who decide to come, but instead they’ll all be trying to evade Border Patrol,” he told TMD. “And the number of additional Border Patrol agents necessary to deal with that is beyond the scope of the federal government to hire.”

“The reaction that people have when they see chaos, which is understandable, they want more enforcement,” Nowrasteh added. “But part of the reason why we have the chaos is because of, one, the enforcement, and two, the fact that there [are] very few legal avenues for these people to come here.”

In the face of the recent surge, some border states have tried to take enforcement into their own hands. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, earlier this month signed into law a measure that makes crossing the border illegally a state crime and empowers state law enforcement authorities to arrest migrants. Abbott also signed laws increasing the minimum sentences for smuggling and stash house operations, as well as increasing funding for border barrier construction. “We expect a dramatic drop, well over 50 percent, maybe 75 percent of the people coming across the border will stop entering through the state of Texas,” Abbott said. The law goes into effect in March, and the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Civil Rights Project are already suing to block it. The White House condemned the law as “extreme,” but did not signal whether the Justice Department would challenge the legislation. 

State and local Democratic leaders forced to deal with a significant influx of migrants putting strain on social services have repeatedly called for more federal action. “Cities should not be handling national problems,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said at a press conference on Tuesday. “I’m hoping that our national leaders understand that and come up [with] real immigration reform.” Some Democratic lawmakers have become more willing to speak about the surge in crossings in recent weeks. “Honestly, it’s astonishing,” Sen. John Fetterman, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, said earlier this month. “You essentially have Pittsburgh showing up there at the border.”

While bipartisan negotiators in the Senate have worked for weeks to iron out a compromise on additional funding for Ukraine’s war effort and stricter border security measures, they didn’t reach an agreement before they adjourned for the holidays. As The Dispatch’s John McCormack reported last week, negotiators are focused on raising the threshold necessary for a successful asylum claim, tweaking the humanitarian parole process, and recreating some version of Title 42—a pandemic-era policy that allowed CBP officials to expel migrants regardless of their rationale for showing up at the border.

The Senate will reconvene the second week of January and will also have to work with the House to keep the government open—the two-tiered stopgap spending measure passed in November funded different parts of the government until January 19 and February 2, respectively. “Our goal is to get something done as soon as we get back,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said regarding the border package negotiations. “This is going to be not easy.”

Worth Your Time 

  • On December 6, 1898, the Buffalo Times printed a letter from Santa Claus inviting local children to submit their own wishlists to St. Nick, and ran the letters on its front page in the days leading up to Christmas. “Most of the letters were short, though some suggested grown-up involvement (‘With eager eyes I have long looked for Christmas’),” Brad Ricca wrote in the Washington Post, which republished many of the letters that graced The Times. “Some of the submissions were parentally transcribed (‘my mammy is holding my hand’) while some proudly were not (‘This is my own handwriting’; ‘My hand is very tired now’). They were sincere, filled with requests, promises and even directions.” On December 23, The Times published a follow-up letter from Santa—he had read all of the letters, but there were just too many for him to handle on his own. So he turned to the local paper for help. “The Times announced that there would be a Christmas party for all who had sent letters to Santa. The children were promised ‘some little gift as evidence’ that Santa Claus had read their letters. For so many who had sent in [letters], it felt like a miracle. On the day of the party, people began lining up early. Five thousand children and their parents came. They were given popcorn balls, steam engines, toy kitchens and whistles. One happy boy finally got the sword he wanted. The Times had purchased all the gifts.”

Presented Without Comment

@realDonaldTrump, at 5:32 p.m. ET on Christmas Eve: “THEY SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN, LIED TO CONGRESS, CHEATED ON FISA, RIGGED A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, ALLOWED MILLIONS OF PEOPLE, MANY FROM PRISONS & MENTAL INSTITUTIONS, TO INVADE OUR COUNTRY, SCREWED UP IN AFGHANISTAN, & JOE BIDEN’S MISFITS & THUGS, LIKE DERANGED JACK SMITH, ARE COMING AFTER ME, AT LEVELS OF PERSECUTION NEVER SEEN BEFORE IN OUR COUNTRY??? IT’S CALLED ELECTION INTERFERENCE. MERRY CHRISTMAS!”

Also Presented Without Comment 

NBC News: Vivek Ramaswamy’s Campaign Stops All TV Ad Spending Less Than a Month Before Iowa and New Hampshire

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics team chronicled the impending Donald Trump-Nikki Haley showdown in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Jonah analyzed the debate surrounding merit and diversity in hiring decisions, Stirewalt awarded (🔒) our first-ever Cutline of the Year honoree, Kevin reflected on (🔒) the Christmas story, and Nick outlined (🔒) two options for Ron DeSantis’ future: disloyalty or pathos.
  • On the podcasts: Jonah ruminated on Trump’s removal from the Colorado ballot and the importance of gratitude at Christmas time, while Princeton professor Robert P. George joined Jamie on The Dispatch Podcast to discuss free speech on college campuses. 
  • On the site over the break: Alex fact checked claims that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky bought a $20 million Florida mansion, Price St. Clair revisited the Christmas classic Elf twenty years after its release, Grace Olmstead considered the original, biblical definition of “ebenezer,” Ben Norquist reported on the somber Christmas facing Palestinian Christians this year, and Gary Schmitt argued a second Trump term poses a threat to NATO.
  • On the site today: Jonah reflects on 2023 as the year of horseshoe theory.

Let Us Know

Do you think the Biden administration should continue to employ a carrot-and-stick approach to immigration policy?

James Scimecca works on editorial partnerships for The Dispatch, and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he served as the director of communications at the Empire Center for Public Policy. When James is not promoting the work of his Dispatch colleagues, he can usually be found running along the Potomac River, cooking up a new recipe, or rooting for a beleaguered New York sports team.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.