US-Mexico border surge: Dangerous homelands might play bigger role than Biden immigration policy

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Young migrants lie inside a pod at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility. It’s the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley, run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in Donna, Texas, Tuesday, March 30, 2021. Photo by Dario Lopez-Mills/Pool via REUTERS

At the U.S.-Mexico border, images show children packed shoulder-to-shoulder in cramped rooms, separated by plastic sheets and covering themselves with thin Mylar blankets to keep warm. Former President Donald Trump shouldered a lot of blame for the conditions in these facilities. Now President Biden’s critics say his immigration policies encourage migrants to surge toward the southern border.

However, immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson says these ebbs and flows have little to do with who occupies the Oval Office, and that the U.S. still doesn’t have a coherent immigration policy. Dickerson’s latest piece in the Atlantic is titled “America’s Immigration Amnesia.”

This week, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced that more than 170,000 were apprehended in March. It’s the largest surge in 15 years. But Dickerson says it’s not the most border patrol agents have dealt with in any given month, and the U.S. also experienced migrant surges in 2012, 2017, and in 2019.

“I mentioned the year 2019. That's three years into President Trump's hardline immigration agenda. That was the year that migration peaked under his presidency. And so it tells you that hardline rhetoric and even aggressive policies like family separation can only do so much to discourage migration.”

She adds, “Smugglers are going around Central America right now and saying to people, ‘Look, you've got to come to the United States now because Trump's not in office anymore.You better hurry, because who knows what's gonna happen in four years?’”

But Dickerson says President Biden’s policies and rhetoric have had no impact on immigration. Migrants weigh multiple factors, including the conditions of their homelands.

“American policy really is only one of them. Much more powerful, typically, is certainly the conditions that people are leaving behind: How bad is it at home to make people want to leave?” she says. “It's very dangerous in Central America. Many people are living in deep poverty. Many people are fleeing gang violence. Many people are just fleeing the general government instability and corruption that exists there.”

Overcrowding has been a large issue at the border, according to Dickerson. She says that many of the CBP facilities were built throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, and were not designed with long-term detention in mind.

“They look kind of like a cell inside of a local jail, almost what cops will call a drunk tank, where they hold somebody just overnight or for a few hours in a concrete cell [with] concrete floors [and] maybe a concrete bench in there, with the goal of sending the person out within a few hours or a day at most. Now you have dozens and dozens of kids getting stuck inside them for days or weeks at a time.”

Dickerson has asked government officials why the facilities hadn’t been updated. In response, they said, “If they were to build massive, comfortable, safe facilities that were intentionally built to house children, that would send a message of welcoming to Central America and encourage even more migration.”

She says that right now, it’s incredibly difficult for migrants to apply for visas, such as H-2A farmworker visas. As a result, many migrants who are escaping difficult conditions in their own countries are applying for asylum at the border. 

"We don't have an immigration system that creates visas for people who are considered to be low skill or lower education, who aren't independently wealthy,” Dickerson says. “Our asylum laws say anybody can come to the American border at any time for any given reason. … That's a legal way to get access to the United States, and so that's the one that people are using because it's the only one they can use legally.”