Why the real US-Mexico border crisis is one of neglect, not numbers

Talk of a “surge” in migrants masks the true problem: the US’s inhumane treatment of children and their families.

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In recent weeks, US news outlets have reported on a new “surge” of migrants and asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border. Republicans have blamed Joe Biden for an increase in numbers. “The Biden administration’s lack of understanding of the power of incentives continues to baffle me: allowing unaccompanied minors to stay in the US will yield a flood of unaccompanied minors,” tweeted the Republican senator Mitt Romney. “This crisis is created by the presidential policies of this new administration,” said the House minority leader Kevin McCarthy. The White House, on the other hand, insists there is no crisis.

In reality, the recent increase in migrants at the border is a story about the longer-term failure of policies of deterrence and punishment, and of how decentred humanity and dignity have become in the US immigration policy of past Republican and Democratic administrations. 

Under Trump, the US administration had been deporting unaccompanied migrant children immediately and without due process, until a court said in November that it had to stop. The court order was lifted shortly after Biden’s inauguration, but the new president's administration has since allowed unaccompanied children in to await deportation hearings, effectively continuing the policy that was in place at the end of Trump's term. 

As of 14 March there were consequently around 4,200 unaccompanied migrant children in short-term holding facilities. Of those, around 3,000 had been there for more than 72 hours, even though migrant children are supposed to be moved out of the jail-like facilities in less than three days. In February, the US received more than 7,000 unaccompanied migrant children; over 1,500 were taken into custody in just the first few days of March.

The increase in the numbers of children arriving, mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico, is possibly due to Biden's choice not to immediately deport unaccompanied migrants. It is possible that they were encouraged by Biden’s less openly xenophobic rhetoric, or by Biden halting construction of Trump’s infamous US-Mexico border wall. 

Biden did not, though, reverse Title 42. Title 42 is a Trump policy that permits officials to expel single adults or families back to Mexico or their home countries due to the public health danger of Covid-19. It was used by the Biden administration to expel more than 72,000 people in February alone.

The border is thus effectively closed to migrants and asylum seekers, save for unaccompanied children. It is not “open”, as Biden’s opponents claim, and it is not “in crisis”, if crisis is defined as a surge in new migrants. 

An analysis of data from US Customs and Border Protection, published in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, a political science blog, shows that the “surge” is actually commensurate with the usual seasonal increase. In 2021 the number of migrants apprehended increased by 28 per cent between January and February; in 2019, the number increased 31 percent over the same time period. The authors of the analysis – including Tom K Wong, the founding director of the US Immigration Policy Center at the University of California, San Diego – suggest that there are also more migrants trying to come this year because they were deterred in 2020 by the pandemic. That’s a return to normal, not an unprecedented influx.

There is a crisis, though. Trump and Stephen Miller, the White House adviser most associated with Trump’s cruel immigration policies, implemented 1,064 changes that make it harder for people to come and easier to kick them out, according to the Immigration Policy Tracking Project. The time it will take to reverse these is a crisis of its own. That Biden still thinks that saying “don’t come” will keep people from coming is another. And thousands of children spending days in overcrowded facilities (NBC reported on 21 March that 882 had been kept in such centres for ten days) is yet another.

The US has built an immigration and homeland security system that treats children inhumanely – even when run by the Department of Homeland Security’s Alejandro Mayorkas, who was on the board of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. This is a crisis. 

Biden has proposed spending $4bn in foreign aid and investment on Central America and southern Mexico to address the drivers of migration. But in the meantime, there are children – and their families, as well as adults without children – who are driven to migrate and seek asylum now. They are being told to wait in their home countries, at potentially great danger to themselves. That is at least as much of a crisis as a non-existent border surge.

[See also: Why the US’s pandemic of gun violence is only getting worse]

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor. 

She co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review

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