Author: Owen Moorehead
Illegal immigration and border security have been contentious issues in Texas for about as long as there’s been a border at all, but lately the rhetoric around the border seems to be reaching a fever pitch. Governor Greg Abbott’s mobilization of the National Guard for Operation Lone Star, his emergency declaration – which explicitly characterizes the current situation as an “invasion” – and the highly publicized busing of migrants from Texas to northern cities have all contributed to this fraught atmosphere.
There’s no question that the current border crisis has been exploited and even exaggerated by politicians of all stripes for partisan purposes – but no one would deny that something unprecedented is happening. The US Border Patrol’s recent numbers for annual apprehensions at the border – an all-time record of 2.4 million – would seem to support this, yet once these data are adjusted for repeat arrests of the same individual, the numbers are pretty much the same as they were in the 1990s.
So what is different about this time? It’s a hard subject for most people to talk about because it’s so complicated: the contributing causes are as varied as climate change, immigration court staffing, COVID-19 and the death of Hugo Chavez, and they all interact in unpredictable ways.
Below you’ll find a brief discussion of some of these factors and how they’ve changed the picture of illegal immigration in Texas and the country as a whole. In a nutshell: no, there’s not a tidal of wave of migrants washing up against the Texas-Mexico – but yes, things really are different. The big drivers have been demographic changes in the profiles of attempted migrants and domestic policy changes to how immigrants are apprehended and processed.
Demographic Shifts in Illegal Immigration
One of the biggest changes at the border in the past decade has been in the origins of arriving migrants. Twenty years ago, the overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants apprehended by the Border Patrol were Mexicans, and of these most were single adults, seeking economic opportunity. Since 2013, the number of migrants from elsewhere in Central and South America has risen dramatically, to the point that over the past two years Mexican nationals accounted for half or less of all apprehensions.
The factors that have contributed to this shift are complicated. Political upheaval in migrants’ home countries – Venezuela, for example, and recently Nicaragua and Colombia – is probably the most salient for most Americans, but this is only part of the story. Economic collapse, food insecurity, gang violence, and even climate change: each has influenced and exacerbated the others, giving migrants from these countries very different motivations from typical migrants of previous decades.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the influence of this change on the current border crisis. The desperation of migrants from Central Mexico and their lack of connections on their own side of the border have led to huge increases in recidivism (repeated attempts by the same person to cross into the United States). This in turn has inflated apprehension statistics, which are far higher than the actual number of people encountered crossing the border last year.
The extensive backlog of cases in immigration courts is also directly attributable to the demographic shift, as a court system designed to handle a few hundred asylum cases a year has been swamped by tens of thousands of asylum seekers. Combined with the policy changes discussed below, this breakdown in the asylum process has further intensified migrants’ motivation to cross the border by any means necessary.
If the crisis at the border seems unprecedented, it’s because illegal immigration itself has transformed in less than a generation, from an economic opportunity to a matter of bare survival. Until this fact is recognized and addressed, no wall, no amount of humanitarian relief, and no penalty will change the situation substantively.
Title 42 and the Migrant Protection Protocols
The other big changes to immigration policy have been much more recent, and frequently confused or conflated: the Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, and Title 42 of the Public Health Services Law. These are separate policies that nevertheless have contributed to the situation in similar ways.
The Remain in Mexico program, which was instituted by the Department of Homeland Security under Donald Trump in 2019, requires that asylum seekers await their hearings in Mexico. This led to the removal of tens of thousands of asylum seekers and a subsequent bottleneck for newly arriving migrants, creating logistical and humanitarian problems on both sides of the border.
The policy’s status has been precarious since its introduction: legal challenges to the policy in 2019 interrupted its enforcement until it was upheld by the US Supreme Court, and attempts by the Biden administration to rescind it have been ongoing since Biden took office in January 2021, with no clear decision yet. (The ongoing confusion over the enforceability of the policy has been largely to blame for the recent predicament of tens of thousands of migrants in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley as a winter storm brought high winds and freezing temperatures to the state.)
Title 42, by contrast, was rolled out in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has more to do with the immediate fate of migrants than their ultimate claims to entry. Essentially, this previously little-known clause in the Public Health Services Law allows federal immigration enforement to expel unauthorized immigrants immediately on apprehension. This is in contrast to Title 8, the previous enforcement mechanism for border crossings, which requires offenders to be processed through criminal or immigration court.
Although the law was designed to prevent the spread of COVID, there’s little evidence that it did any such thing. Instead, its widespread employment paradoxically incentivized repeat crossings, since “expulsion” under Title 42 carries no criminal penalties (some officials have characterized it as a “catch and release” policy).
Given what we already know about the motivation of many of these migrants to escape their home countries, it should not be surprising that many would simply try again and again. If you need evidence, just look at rates of recidivism for people apprehended and expelled: the rate of recidivism, which was 7% before the policy took effect in 2019, was 27% last year.
Like the MPP, Title 42’s fate is very much in question. The Biden administration planned to discontinue it in spring of this year, but the subsequent court battle has drawn this out indefinitely. In the meantime, actual use of the law is falling, as more and more arriving migrants are processed as usual under Title 8 – but the rise in repeated crossings has yet to fall to pre-pandemic levels, leading to overstretched law enforcement at the federal and state levels.
When it comes to illegal immigration and border issues, an article like this can only hope to scratch the surface. For an issue that is so important to Americans – even those living thousands of miles away from the Mexican border – there’s surprisingly little nuance in public discussions of border security.
Most Americans are still operating on a twenty year-old picture of illegal immigration that no longer remotely applies to the situation: even lawmakers don’t seem to fully understand the origins, motivations, and fates of the hundreds of thousands of people who try to gain access to the US each year. If they did, they might be able to make the substantive changes that most Americans want to see – but until then, it may be enough simply to recognize that the issue is thornier, more complex, and deeper than we’re led to believe: as G.I. Joe always said, “knowing is half the battle.”
- Pew Research
- Texas Tribune