Biden Revives Obama's Child Migrant Program to Slow Gang-Led Border Scramble

President Joe Biden is reviving a program allowing migrant children to join their relatives living legally in the U.S., while gangs operating along the Southern border have recently ramped up migrant-smuggling activities.

Ambassador Roberta Jacobson, Biden's coordinator for the Southern border, on Wednesday announced the reinstatement of the Central American Minors program, an Obama-era initiative that was ended during the administration of former President Donald Trump. The move comes after detentions along the border surged to their highest levels since mid-2019 during the first month of the Biden administration, according to Reuters.

"We are announcing the restarting of the Central American Minors program for children to be reunited with a parent who is legally in the United States," Jacobson said during a press briefing. "This program was ended abruptly by the previous administration, leaving around 3,000 children, already approved for travel, stranded."

Jacobson stressed that the border was "not open" despite the program being revived. However, she suggested that the program could provide an alternative for those seeking to move children across the border via smuggling.

"When we talk about the border not being open and, you know, the ways in which we're trying to dissuade people from making that dangerous journey, the smugglers are conveying exactly the opposite to people," said Jacobson. "We need to be looking at things like the CAM program—the Central American Minors program ... how we can expand that, how we can make ... eligibility greater."

Joe Biden Immigration Border Migrant Smuggling Mexico
President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C. on March 8, 2021. Alex Wong/Getty

Mexican intelligence figures cited by Reuters suggest that criminal networks smuggle unaccompanied children from Central America into the U.S. at a cost of around $3,250 per child. Prices to move minors from other regions of the world can be significantly higher, with the going rate for Africans reportedly being $20,000.

The Mexican government is concerned that Biden's immigration policies will "incentivize" smuggling, according to internal assessments and officials cited by Reuters. Smuggling rings sometimes disguise their activities by posing as travel agencies, while using technology to thwart attempts at derailing their operations.

"Migrants have become a commodity," said a Mexican official familiar with migration developments, who spoke to the wire service on the condition of anonymity. "But if a packet of drugs is lost in the sea, it's gone. If migrants are lost, it's human beings we're talking about."

Cesar Peniche, the attorney general of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, told Reuters those gathering near the border in hopes of entering the U.S. have also become targets for gangs who sometimes kidnap migrants for ransom or recruit them to act as drug mules.

Jacobson, who served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2016 to 2018, said that the administration hoped to both discourage migrants from coming into the country "through irregular means" and to "convey to everybody in the region that we will have legal processes for people in the future and we're standing those up as soon as we can."

"I will certainly agree that we are trying to walk and chew gum at the same time," Jacobson said.

Newsweek reached out to the White House for comment.