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Migrant crisis on the border worsens as system collapses

The crisis along the southern border is not going away. While Trump tried to fix it by decree, Biden is trying to overhaul the process. But experts warn the problem goes beyond policy: The immigration system is obsolete and cannot handle an exodus that does not stop.
2 Sep 2021 – 11:49 AM EDT
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Asylum seekers wade into the Rio Grande while crossing from Mexico into the United States on March 16, 2021 from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Crédito: John Moore/Getty Images

While Republicans insist on claiming that the problem of undocumented migration starts at the border, the White House is pushing to overhaul the process. Advisers to Joe Biden believe the laws approved by Congress since 1963 can handle the problem. But everything points to the crisis increasing over time, not shrinking.

The complex U.S. immigration system and the range of causes that provoked the crisis, added to the stagnation in Congress and partisan polarization have created the conditions for a perfect storm. And while officials search for answers in Washington, thousands of people are piling up on the southern border after leaving their homes with the hope of crossing illegally to find work.

Those who want to apply for asylum don't know what to do, because there's nothing to guarantee their requests will be received, processed and approved.

And those who pay a people smuggler from $8,000 to $12,000, if they are intercepted and deported, will try again and again in a vicious circle that can end in death.

“If they try again they have to pay,” said Gustavo Juárez, director of the Association of Guatemala Deportees. “But since they don't have any money and already mortgaged their homes and lands, they are in misery. Many times the lenders accept payments from the relatives, but sometimes they are late or cannot pay, so they don't get back the titles to their properties.”

When Donald Trump launched his campaign to win the White House in 2015, he used the immigration issue to justify his hateful anti-immigration speeches. He said Mexicans – in general, without specifying if he meant undocumented or not – were criminals, drug traffickers and rapists. And after winning the 2016 elections he continued using the same rhetoric to support his requests for funds to finance his border wall and controversial “zero tolerance” policies.

"Large sections of WALL have already been built with much more either under construction or ready to go," Trump wrote in early 2019 on his Twitter account, suspended this year for inciting his supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to block the certification of Biden's victory in the 2020 presidential elections.

"Renovation of existing WALLS is also a very big part of the plan to finally, after many decades, properly Secure Our Border. The Wall is getting done one way or the other!" — @realDonaldTrump, January 31, 2019 (Suspended Twitter account)

Hiding facts

Trump built his speeches by hiding and/or misrepresenting facts.

To this day he refuses to admit that implementing his migration policies meant violating laws and legal agreements that guarantee the process approved by Congress for asylum seekers. He also never had majority support from his own party, which controlled the U.S. House and Senate during part of his rule.

In contrast, Biden chose to abandon the “zero tolerance” and re-apply the old system. But now thousands of people facing chronic problems of poverty, violence, corruption, unemployment, climate change and the pandemic are leaving everything behind to head north in search of U.S. asylum – even though none of those reasons can legally justify their entry to the United States.

“The crisis now is no worse than before,” said Joe Garcia, a former Florida Democratic Congressman. “Part of the mistake is that the previous administration threw out much of what Obama had done to fix it. Now we not only have to change and repair the damages, but increase the capacity to respond.”

“The president has the executive power to do it, but Congress has the urgent need to approve a new immigration policy that addresses not only the problem on the border but finds a viable solution for the 11 million undocumented,” Garcia said. “An immigration reform is urgent.”

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The start of the crisis

Although Barack Obama fought to find solutions to the border problem, his answers came late.

In 2013, a group of researchers at the University of California had warned the U.N. Refugee Agency that the exodus of Central Americans was increasing exponentially. The White House had been warned, but the reaction did not come quickly.

In July 2014 – 15 months after the warning and at a time when U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents had detained more than 46,000 unaccompanied minors and about the same number of family units and adult migrants since the start of that fiscal year – Obama for the first time referred to the situation as a “crisis.”

Today, seven months after Biden was sworn into office, the same crisis that shook the last two presidential terms still divides the country. On one side, Republicans compare the numbers under Trump's negative narrative to highlight his alleged successes and blame the crisis on the Democrat, even though they know the crisis did not start at the border. The White House meanwhile spends time and resources trying to explain its immigration policy as well as the exodus, a constant flow of people that does not stop despite the dissuasive measures adopted since Jan. 20.

It is worth noting that the number of detentions includes those labeled as inadmissible – foreigners who were detained and expelled in a swift procedure. In Fiscal Year 2019, for example, CBP reported arresting 977,509 people. That included 126,001 who were inadmissible (under U.S. immigration laws they had committed crimes, had been previously deported or constituted a threat to public or national security). The remaining 851,508 included the following categories:

Biden's measures

These are some of the dissuasive measures adopted by the Biden Administration to restore due process in the immigration system and respond to the crisis in accordance with U.S. laws:

What's more, the Biden administration justifies its immigration policies by pointing out that since January 30 – and after the withdrawal of most of the executive orders and more than 400 memorandums issued during Trump's four-year rule – it has reestablished the following immigration policies:

Historic gridlock

The attempts to revive immigration policies have run into a collapsed system. The little more than 520,000 cases pending before immigration courts at the end of 2016 had grown to more than 1.2 million at the start of 2021, while the waiting time for final rulings had grown to more than three years.

The government has adopted measures to speed up the process and break up the logjam at the immigration courts, but the situation appears to be \
nchanged because of the crisis on the border and the fact that the government is now obeying its own laws and regulations.

Among the changes so far are the following:

“Everything has slowed in the last years, but now we see that the government is interested in correcting mistakes,” he added. “The point is that more and more people from different countries are fleeing and coming to the United States, looking for asylum. But we have a prehistoric (immigration) law that Congress has to modernize, but it does not, and an immigration court with a gigantic waiting line.”

Detention capacity

The border issue is complex, and the way the facts are presented can generate confusion for some and benefit others who use them to invent a negative narrative.

CBP figures show that so far in Fiscal Year 2021 – Oct. 1 2020 to June 30 2021 – the border with Mexico has seen 1,119,204 undocumented foreigners detained, the highest number since 2006, during the George W. Bush administration, when 1,089,092 were detained. That's 15 years.

Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, both loyal supporters of Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric before, during and after his presidency, argue that the number reflects the heart of the crisis – but don't mention that the number also reflects the Biden administration's successes interdicting undocumented migrants.

DeSantis posted this on his Twitter account on July 7:

On the same day, Abbott wrote: “Texas & Florida law enforcement officers are working around the clock to secure the border. Thank you, @GovRonDeSantis , for sending resources. Together, we will keep our communities safe from the cartels & human traffickers profiting from Biden’s border crisis.”

Later that day, Abbott added: “The number of illegal migrants crossing the border is the highest it's been in 20 years. Texas Democrats are making it impossible to provide the funding needed at the local level to respond to this crisis. It's time they #getbacktowork & do their job.”

Two days later, on July 19, Abbott wrote: “Over a million migrants have been apprehended at the border since Biden-Harris took office. Democrats must come back to Austin to ensure law enforcement has the funding they need to face this record-breaking challenge.”

The comments by the two governors raised questions. For one, it was not the highest number in 20 years, but 15 years, according to the CBP figures. And it is not clear whether the drop registered in 2020 was caused by Trump's policies or the closing of the border because of the pandemic.

What's more, Fiscal Year 2019 saw 977,508 detentions on the southern border, compared to 521,090 in FY2008, an 87.5 percent increase. Without the pandemic that started in March 2020, the number of detentions would be projected to hit 1.8 million for FY 2021.

The drug issue

One argument used by Trump before, during and after his presidency is that drugs flooding across the border are killing thousands of people in the United States. He has mentioned hard drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Although it is true, as the New York Times reported in January 2019, that the great majority of illegal drugs come across the southern border, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has reported that drugs like heroin arrive aboard vehicles at legal crossing points, not in the areas where Trump built his wall.

CBP reports published in 2019 also showed that most of the drugs seized on the border FY2014-2018 – except for marijuana, which is now legal in several states – arrived at legal border crossings and not the “open” border, as claimed by Trump and the two governors.


legal border crossings

In 2019, Univision Noticias reported that after a lengthy discussion on the indicators used by the Trump administration to gauge the real situation on the border, the government had started in 2016 to use a new metric, detailed in a Department of Homeland Security report published in May 2018.

According to that report, the number of estimated crossings not detected had dropped almost as quickly as the number of CBP detentions on the southern border. From 851,000 in FY2000, the number plunged to 62,000 in FY2016.

Three years later, the DHS report for FY2020 – Trump's last year in the White House – estimated illegal entries had increased during FY2017 and FY2018. And that the 95 percent effective rate for detention capacity estimated for 2006 and 2016 – from more than 1 million to less than 56,000 per year at the end of the Obama administration – was turning worse again.

The report said the methodology used to estimate the successful crossings by undocumented migrants rose from 2017 to 2018 – the first two years of the Trump administration – by at least 11 percentage points compared to 2016.

There are no estimates yet for successful illegal crossings during FY2020, and the figures for FY2021 will not be known until 2022. But the estimates point to increases during the Trump administration despite the “zero tolerance” policy – estimates that Trump and other Republicans don't mention when they attack Biden's immigration policies.


On the issue of deportations, neither Trump nor supporters of his immigration policies are correct. The former president did not match the numbers notched by the first Obama-Biden administration (2009-2013).

According to those numbers, Trump deported 40 percent fewer people than Obama in their first four years in the White House. Trump deported a daily average of 649 migrants, while Obama deported 1,094 per day.

The lie as a political weapon

A New York Times report in August of 2017, referring to Trump's lies in his first seven months in office, noted that “politicians lie to pump themselves up, to polish their stories and cover up their misdeeds, including their affairs.” And it mentioned two former presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, who lied to justify the war in Vietnam and Bill Clinton to hide his scandalous affairs.

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But Trump, it added, “seems to have taken what author Hannah Arendt once called 'the conflict between truth and politics' to a totally new level, something that historians and experts from both parties agree on.”

Three years later, on January 23 2021, The Washington Post reported that Trump lied “with growing frequency and ferocity,” and by the end of his rule was frantically spreading “crazy theories that the Coronavirus pandemic would disappear 'like a miracle'” and that the 2020 elections “were stolen” from him – a claim he continues to make.

The newspaper went on to note that the final tally of Trump's presidency stood at 30,573 lies and false or misleading affirmations – nearly half of them in the last half of his rule.

Lying works

Why all the lies? Why use the same anti-immigrant rhetoric of always? Why are there millions of voters still listening to this kind of talk?

“Donald Trump has bet his entire political career on his electoral base,” said Roberto Izurieta, director of Latin American Projects at George Washington University.

“It worked for him in the primaries and the general elections four years ago, when he was elected president,” Izureta said. “Even though he lost the mid-terms (Democrats won control of the House) and reelection last year, he continues to bet on his base, just like he's betting on the anti-vaxers.”

Trump won 74.2 million votes in November 2020, with backing from people who support his anti-immigrant “zero tolerance” policy; compared to 81.2 million Biden votes, with backing from people who support a solution for the 11 million undocumented migrants, through a broad reform approved by Congress.

If the former president decides to seek reelection in 2024, his campaign team will have to consider whether his anti-immigrant rhetoric will have the same impact, without access to Twitter or Facebook accounts that can disseminate it.

Reporter José Fernando López contributed to this report.