Migrants from Haiti, Africa, and Central America wait to see if their number will be called to cross the border and apply for asylum in the United States, at the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, in September 2019.
Immigrant advocates, eager to break with four years of Trump administration policies, are raising concerns about President-elect Joe Biden's plan to move cautiously to avoid making matters worse.
While still publicly supporting the Biden transition team, they're imploring the incoming administration to move with urgency.
"This is a matter of life and death," said Guerline Jozef, the executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, because tens of thousands of migrants still face dangerous conditions in Mexican border towns.
"We have people literally dying in Tijuana, in Matamoros, all over Mexico because of those policies that stop them from coming up for asylum," she said during a call with reporters on Tuesday.
During a press conference in his home state of Delaware, the president-elect sought to reassure immigrant advocates that he will move to undo many of President Trump's immigration policies. But Biden acknowledged that many of those changes would not happen on Day 1.
"The timeline is to do it so that we, in fact, make it better, not worse," he said.
During the campaign, Biden promised to undo many of Trump's policies at the border. He has pledged to restore asylum protections, and to end the program that requires tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their hearings in U.S. immigration court. But he now says those efforts could take months, not days.
"It's a matter of setting up the guardrails so we can move in the direction," Biden said, so that we don't "end up with two million people on our border."
Biden's comments echoed those made by two of his top policy advisers in an interview with Spanish wire service EFE that was published on Monday, which seemed calculated in part to temper expectations among the Spanish-speaking populations in Latin America and avoid triggering a new migration crisis at the border.
"Processing capacity at the border is not like a light that you can just switch on and off," said Susan Rice, the incoming domestic policy adviser, according to a translation of the interview transcript. "Migrants and asylum seekers absolutely should not believe those in the region peddling the idea that the border will suddenly be fully open to process everyone on Day 1. It will not."
On a call with reporters, immigrant advocates across the country urged the incoming administration to move quickly.
"So many people have fallen into danger and kidnapping and homelessness" while waiting for a chance to seek asylum in the U.S., said Linda Rivas, executive director and managing attorney at the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas.
"So we definitely have this sense of urgency that we want to convey."
In the interview with EFE, Rice was asked whether the Biden administration will move to end the public health order that has effectively closed the border to migrants during the coronavirus pandemic. Rice did not give a clear answer, to the dismay of some immigrant advocates.
"The Trump administration used public health as their sole rationale" for closing the border, said Dr. Michele Heisler, medical director of Physicians for Human Rights, on the call with reporters. "There's no basis for that," said Heisler, who argues the incoming administration could begin to process asylum seekers at the border without jeopardizing public health in the U.S.
But overall, immigrant advocates seem willing to give Biden and his team the benefit of the doubt — at least for now.
"This is a new vision that we're quite excited about," said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America's Voice, a pro-immigrant nonprofit in Washington, D.C. "We're going to push them every step of the way so they don't take their foot off the pedal."