WASHINGTON — As thousands of Honduran migrants make their way to the U.S. border, the incoming Biden administration, just days from taking office, has a message: Don't come now.
President-elect Joe Biden has promised an end to the strict immigration policies of the Trump administration, which focused on building a border wall and restricting eligibility for asylum.
But those promises may be put to the test in the new government's first days. If would-be emigrants from Central America perceive that now is the time to travel to the U.S., the southern border could quickly be overwhelmed before systems are put in place to handle the influx.
A senior Biden transition team official said the perception that the Biden administration will be able to allow all arriving asylum seekers to enter the U.S. to make their claim on day one is false.
"The situation at the border isn't going to be transformed overnight," the transition official told NBC News in an exclusive interview.
But the official declined to say when asylum seekers might be able to come to the U.S. and whether they will be detained as they await a court hearing.
An estimated 9,000 Honduran migrants are fleeing food-scarce regions devastated by two hurricanes, drought and economic hardship. On Friday night, about 2,000 members of the caravan pushed past Guatemalan authorities and entered Guatemala without showing documentation or negative COVID screenings, the Associated Press reported. The caravan may arrive at the U.S. border in the coming weeks.
While some may be spurred by promises of an easier path to the U.S., in the past increases in immigration have occurred around U.S. elections and transitions of power. There was a spike in migration in late 2016 and early 2017, just before Trump took office, and caravans from Central America arrived in southern California in 2018, around the mid-term elections.
Trump adviser Stephen Miller, the administration's immigration hawk, told reporters shortly before the 2020 election that Biden’s immigration policies would result in “open borders” and the end of America being a “sovereign nation.”
Prior to the recent caravan, there were already tens of thousands of migrants who had been stopped at the U.S. border by the Trump administration and told to wait in Mexico until their court dates to present their asylum cases. Many have given up and returned south, but thousands remain in poor conditions in Northern Mexico waiting to enter the U.S.
The senior Biden transition official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said those who have been waiting at the border, along with other vulnerable populations, will be a priority for processing and entry, rather than those who have recently arrived.
The official said migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. to claim asylum in the first few weeks of the new administration "need to understand they're not going to be able to come into the United States immediately."
The official also emphasized that any immigration legislation proposed by the Biden administration will be for undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S., not those who are considering arriving now.
The Biden administration does wish to end the Trump administration practice that required asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico, known as the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), but it will not be allowing all migrants to enter the U.S. at once as soon as Biden takes office, the official said.
"There's help on the way, but now is not the time to make the journey," the official said.
The incoming administration has also pledged to roll back Trump-imposed restrictions on asylum that have drastically cut the number of those eligible for protections.
Over time, the official said, the Biden administration plans to set up a way to safely process migrants at the border and allow asylum seekers to make their claims.
The transition official declined to give specifics on what migrants traveling in the Honduran caravan will encounter when they reach the U.S. border under a Biden administration, in part because they expect to receive more information on U.S. migrant processing capabilities after Biden is sworn in on Wednesday.
But the official did say that people in the caravan "will not find when they get to the U.S. border that from Tuesday to Wednesday, things have changed overnight and ports are all open and they can come into the United States."
At the same time, rates of Covid-19 are surging in the U.S. and around the world. The official said the pandemic, plus the time it will take for the Biden administration to restart the processing of migrants and asylum seekers at the southern border, makes now an especially difficult time to travel.
"We have to provide a message that help and hope is on the way, but coming right now does not make sense for their own safety…while we put into place processes that they may be able to access in the future," the official said.