In March and April, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol apprehended more than 100,000 people per month along the U.S.-Mexico border. Most of these were families from Central America.
Migration across the southern border is changing. But these changes in migration patterns, from mostly young, single men to family units, are not the result of a breaking border. They are, instead, produced in large part by decades of ever-harsher border enforcement.
The administration is making a series of claims about a border "crisis." On May 8, Border Patrol chief Carla Provost told a Senate Judiciary panel that "apprehension numbers are off the charts." Yet, although these monthly totals are an increase over the past few years, they are still less than half of similar tallies for the early 2000s.
Moreover, the term "apprehensions" should be read critically. Most people are not trying to sneak into the country. They present themselves at ports of entry or cross the border at more remote locations and then stand at the fence and wait for the Border Patrol to pick them up, in order to present their petitions for asylum. "Surrender" would be a more appropriate term. This is hardly evidence of a "breaking" border. Under U.S. law, people have the legal right to apply for asylum no matter where they cross the border.
In fact, this current pattern of migration is much less of a crisis than when people trekked for days through the harsh desert to elude the Border Patrol. An investigation by the USA Today Network found that more than 7,000 people lost their lives crossing the southern border in the past 20 years. That was the true border crisis, as Greg Hess, the medical examiner for southern Arizona's Pima County, testified earlier this year.
Another Border Patrol claim is that the agency is spending 40 percent to 60 percent of its effort on managing Central American migrants. This is meant to suggest that there are looming threats to which agents are not responding because they are attending to migrant families.
But let's remember that the number of Border Patrol agents increased 500 percent since 2000, even as overall migration numbers declined. According to a CNN investigation, being a border patrol agent is the least dangerous of any law enforcement job. Border counties have a lower incidence of violence than similar-sized counties in non-border areas, according to data compiled by the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C. research center. And there has never been a terrorist attack against the United States involving people coming across the U.S.-Mexico border, nor any known terrorists arrested here.
Receiving Central American asylum petitioners isn't taking Border Patrol agents away from their "real" job. It is their job. If they are flailing, it's because the institution is in crisis, not the border.
"Guatemala and Honduras have seen over 1% of their total population migrate to the U.S. in the first seven months of this fiscal year," acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said in a speech on May 7.
This is meant to alarm. But let's put that number into historical context. Central American migration to the United States has been occurring at high rates for a long time. Twenty percent of El Salvador already lives in the United States. Ten percent of the Guatemalan population lives in the United States and has for decades. In fact, the current rate of Guatemalan immigration is similar to the late 1990s, when Guatemalan migration to the United States doubled in just two years.
At that time, Central American migration to the U.S. wasn't described as a crisis. In fact, the World Bank and other international agencies began to emphasis remittances sent back home by migrants as a potential economic development strategy for the region.
But beginning in the 2000s, migrants from Central America confronted ever more punitive border enforcement strategies. This included sealing urban entry points, which pushed people to cross through the harsh desert, as well as high-tech drones, sensors and cameras, and a ratcheting up of punishment against detained migrants.
This history of border enforcement helps explain why Central Americans now migrate with their children. In the past, men usually migrated alone. They would work for a while in the United States and then return to visit their families. But now, border militarization has ratcheted up the cost and risks of making the journey. Where it used to cost around $1,000 to make the journey from Central America, it now costs up to $15,000, making shuttle migration impossible. The only way for families to stay together is for women and children to migrate, and coyotes now offer a discounted rate for families.
There are many reasons why people migrate. Central American families are fleeing violence and poverty, as they have for decades. But U.S. border enforcement itself is a key factor in the current rise in family migration.
The border isn't breaking. This is border enforcement at work, albeit in unintended ways.
Certainly, the changing characteristics of migration across the southern border present challenges. No one knows this better than the churches and non-profits that are performing Herculean labors of care for asylum petitioners released from detention along the border. But, here again, there is evidence that immigration authorities are manipulating conditions on the border in order to fuel a crisis narrative. Last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement released hundreds of people on the streets of Yuma, Arizona, even while shelter beds were empty in Phoenix, in an apparent effort to convince town authorities to declare a local state of emergency.
The language of a "border crisis" is meant to scare us. It's part of what former Border Patrol agent Chris Montoya calls the "border threat narrative," the spurious idea of the southern border as a place of danger. The true danger, asserts Montoya, is how the idea of a border in crisis moves public discourse and leads to bad policy. There is no shortage of bad policy coming from the Trump administration and its proxies, from troops and razor wire on the border, to dismantling the asylum system, to suggestions of sending migrants to Gitmo, to the barbaric debacle of family separation. One of the most important ways to respond is to call out the lie of a "breaking" border.
Elizabeth Oglesby is an associate professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She is co-editor of “The Guatemala Reader” and “Guatemala: The Question of Genocide” and a former editor of Central America Report.