Making Sense of the ‘Border Crisis’

Migrants are enduring horrific conditions while politicians squabble about terminology.

You may have heard in the news recently that there is a Crisis At The Border. Huge numbers of people are now clamoring at the southern border, many of them unaccompanied children. As described by people on the right, this is a crisis caused by lax enforcement. Republican politicians like Tom Cotton and “centrist” commentators like Fareed Zakaria have argued that these increased migration numbers are due to the Biden administration’s softening of (as Zakaria puts it) Trump’s “practical policies” at the border. The examples they cite include:

  • The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP)/Remain in Mexico program—required tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to wait in dangerous Mexican border towns, without housing, healthcare, or legal help, constantly vulnerable to a booming kidnapping-for-ransom industry, while their cases proceeded before U.S. border judges 
  • The Safe Third Country Transit Ban—blocked virtually all migrants at the southern border from obtaining asylum if they had passed through any third country on their way to the U.S.
  • Various short-lived agreements with countries like Guatemala and Honduras—incentivized places designated by our government as “safe third countries” for asylum-seekers to accept planeloads of migrants apprehended at our southern border, despite the large numbers of asylum-seekers fleeing those same countries. 

This narrative portrays a Biden administration that has invited an uncontrollable tsunami of immigration by breaking radically with the enforcement policies of his predecessor.

Meanwhile, many people on the left have agreed that there is currently a “crisis,” not because of the increased border numbers in and of themselves, but because of the cruel and unsafe conditions under which the arriving migrants are being detained. New images have emerged of children huddled inside foil wrappings at the Donna tent facility in Texas, packed into cages made of chain-link fencing, with little apparent regard for social distancing. These photos of “kids in cages” under Biden are visually identical to the photos of “kids in cages” that once whipped up Democrats into a righteous fury against Trump: some people have denounced the Biden administration as no better than Trump, while others have tried to distinguish Biden’s policies from Trump’s. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, has been taking heat from the left for putting out a video message warning against drawing “false equivalencies” between the Trump administration’s systematic separation of children from their parents at the border from April-June 2018, and the Biden administration’s detention of children under deplorable conditions at the border now. Among non-Republicans, we thus have competing narratives that Biden is managing the crisis as well as he can under difficult circumstances, and that Biden is in fact cynically employing the exact same enforcement tactics as Trump, knowing that partisan hypocrisy will cause his supporters to make excuses for him.

Let’s first ask ourselves: is there a Crisis At The Border? On the one hand—yes. There is always a crisis at the border, in the sense that there are always people trying to migrate across the border, and we always have huge amounts of state firepower directed at making that process as miserable and unsafe for migrants as possible. But “crisis” isn’t really the most accurate word to describe the situation, because it implies that we’re talking about a sudden, alarming deviation from a status quo. In fact, these conditions are the status quo, and have been for several decades. When the border is suddenly in the news, there is usually some weird manufacturing of consent going on, and I don’t think it’s always easy for even well-intentioned people to understand the trajectory of the opinions that these crisis narratives drive them to reflexively adopt.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s take a couple examples of Border Crises in relatively recent memory. People may remember the media frenzy about a migration “surge” at the border in 2014, during Obama’s second term. In fact, numbers-wise, 2014 wasn’t really a remarkable year. There were 486,651 apprehensions at the border, which was somewhat higher than the previous year’s total of 414,397, but considerably below the annual averages for 2000-2009, when border apprehensions of 1 million a year or more were typical. What was different was that of those 2014 apprehensions, an atypically high percentage were children and families, mostly from Central America. Not wanting to deal with the logistical, legal, and political hassle of increased numbers of children at the border, the Obama administration began capturing and interning migrant families en masse, for the express purpose of deporting them as rapidly as possible, in what President Obama called “an aggressive deterrence strategy.” Characterizing a demographic shift within otherwise typical border numbers as a “crisis” or a “surge” was a conscious political choice by the Obama administration, allowing them to justify draconian enforcement against asylum-seeking families as a necessary evil, even as the administration continued to claim that its overall enforcement strategy was aimed at “felons, not families.” Even though the Obama administration’s intended policy of indefinite detention of families at the border was ultimately blocked, detaining families who presented at the border to seek asylum nevertheless became normalized. This has resulted in a family internment system at the border that’s lasted up to the present day.

A more recent “border crisis” took place under the Trump administration in late 2018 into the spring of 2019, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) repeatedly claimed that the numbers of people at the border were so huge and unmanageable that they had no place to safely house people while they were processed. DHS forced suffering migrants to wait in highly visible public locations, like beneath the port of entry bridge in El Paso, while loudly proclaiming that they lacked the resources to humanely deal with the problem. These repeated claims that DHS facilities lacked bedspace were actually lies. As advocates at the border pointed out, the Trump administration temporarily emptied out numerous detention centers during this exact period, and CBP officials have since admitted that they were instructed to falsely tell people approaching the border that they had no space to process them for asylum. At the time, however, mainstream media outlets were entirely credulous toward DHS’s self-serving statements about a “crisis” throughout the fall and spring, and ran stories uncritically regurgitating this narrative. In fact, the Trump administration was deliberately inflating this “crisis” in order to set the stage for the rollout of some of its most ambitiously cruel policies in the name of “border control”—like the Remain in Mexico program, the asylum ban, and the safe third country agreements. (The systematic family separations that people associate most strongly with Trump was an experiment that lasted a few months in 2018 and then ceased; these other policies, although they made less of a splash in the news, had much longer lifespans and affected tens of thousands more migrants).

This is all to say that Crisis At The Border narratives are often pure media creations for specific political purposes, and we should always be wary of unconsciously accepting that framing when it’s presented to us. For a good illustration of why the language of border crisis can be unhelpful even when used by well-intentioned people, we have only to look to the summer of 2019, where—hard on the heels of about eight months of crisis messaging by the Trump administration—the public became extremely angry about the horrific conditions under which migrants, including children, were being detained after apprehension at the border. This, they proclaimed, was the real border crisis! But because a crisis is imagined to be an atypical, short-term phenomenon, requiring quick and decisive action in order to return to a “normal” state of affairs, political energy quickly coalesced around just throwing a bunch of “emergency” money at DHS to improve detention conditions at the border. This having been accomplished, the moment of rage quickly faded from public consciousness; DHS got a nice fat payout, which it used to buy Border Patrol agents some sick new dirtbikes and ATVs; and nothing else changed.

So what should we make of the current Border Crisis? First, the right-wing narrative that there’s currently a “surge” caused by the Biden administration’s rollback of Trump’s asylum-restricting policies doesn’t seem to add up. It’s true that Biden has taken a couple of initial steps to roll back some of the worst parts of the Trump administration’s pre-pandemic border agenda, but the numbers of people approaching the border appear to have started rising back in April 2020, well before the election. DHS currently anticipates it will apprehend 2 million immigrants at the border in 2021, which would be a record high since 2006; but this is a speculative number based on current apprehension rates (March was an extremely high month) during a time when summary expulsions from the border have been going on for months and have stranded lots of migrants in border areas. The pandemic, together with a devastating sequence of droughts and hurricanes in Central America, has also exacerbated difficult conditions in sending countries. It’s hard to imagine a universe in which this wouldn’t affect the numbers of people seeking to migrate, regardless of who is president.

I do, however, think that the recently increased numbers of unaccompanied kids can be more directly tied to Biden’s enforcement choices. Currently, the Biden administration is continuing to deploy the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “public health” order wherever it sees fit, in order to bounce people back summarily from the border with zero due process. But unlike the Trump administration, the Biden administration has publicly stated that they won’t use the CDC order to block unaccompanied children. This is the most plausible explanation for why unaccompanied kids are now coming in higher numbers. Because single adults and even family units run the risk of being expelled directly from the border, it makes sense that kids would come to the border alone if they and their families want to ensure that they’re actually allowed in. If the Biden administration announced that it wouldn’t be applying the CDC order to anyone, I imagine we would see fewer “unaccompanied” kids. It’s true that kids who come to the border alone pose some unique challenges—the law requires the government to place unaccompanied kids in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement until they can be connected to their family members in the U.S., and it does stand to reason that you can’t just release a child onto the street without identifying a caregiver—but the Biden administration’s choice to continue applying the CDC order to adults has likely played a role in increasing the numbers of kids in this situation. Changes in migration numbers and demographic composition are influenced by a whole host of push and pull factors, one component of which are the government’s own enforcement policies (as publicly stated) and practices (as actually observed by prospective border-crossers).

As for the conditions at the border cells and tent facilities where people are held for processing, they’re definitely bad. I imagine they’re probably no better and no worse than they were under presidents Obama and Trump, both of whose administrations routinely required kids and adults to sleep on the floors of chilly border cells and warehouses sectioned off into chain-link cages (nicknamed “iceboxes” and “dog kennels,” respectively) during border processing. The overcrowding is more egregiously inhumane because of COVID, but it’s otherwise not a new thing. Republicans are painting the current situation as a “crisis” because they want to show a floundering Biden administration unable to deal with an influx of migration. But although Biden’s spokespeople have so far resisted using the word “crisis” themselves, they have nevertheless been quick  to imply that the new images of “kids in cages” are products of an unfortunate, “challenging” intersection between public health emergency, high border numbers, and limited resources to care for parentless children. By acting like these photos of kids in cages have been produced by unique conditions, Democrats can avoid admitting that the status quo of border detention has looked pretty much the same under both parties, regardless of whether border numbers are unusually high or not. Obama, for example, held kids and families in such conditions well before the so-called “surge” in 2014. Although I understand the point AOC was trying to make in explaining the difference between Biden keeping unaccompanied kids in overcrowded cages while they’re processed for transfer and eventual release, and Trump keeping kids in overcrowded cages immediately after ripping them directly from the arms of their parents, I think it’s a big mistake to implicitly allow Trump’s short-lived mass family separation experiment—an insane high-water mark of punitive border enforcement—to be the standard by which all subsequent border enforcement is assessed. This framing also overlooks the extent to which the Biden administration’s continued use of the CDC order, and other past and current policies that penalize adults and families who come to the border, indirectly causes family separations by compelling some people to send their children across the border alone.

Both the Republicans’ and the Democrats’ crisis narratives have historically trended in the same direction: calling for more enforcement resources at the border, whether in the name of law and order, or in the “humanitarian” interests of improving and streamlining people’s stays in border holding facilities prior to their deportation, transfer to long-term detention, or release. This, in turn, further enriches DHS, and makes the detention infrastructure at the border even more entrenched. Keeping the public primed to think of migration as something that is constantly erupting into “crisis” also gives the government a ready-made narrative to justify any future harshening of border policies it may deem politically and logistically expedient. The reality is that the movement of people across the region that is now the U.S.’ southern border has been going on for centuries, and is never going to stop. This movement is not itself the problem, the problem is our government’s obsession—which increases with every passing decade—with capturing and tagging a critical mass of migrants at the border each year, in order to appease nativist sentiment and ensure profits for private prison and surveillance companies. Instead of trying to make border apprehensions and processing more “humane” and “efficient,” we have to work toward a future where rounding people up at the border in the first place is seen for the cruel and pointless exercise it is.

All opinions expressed here are my own, and not on behalf of any organization or group.

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