Media crisis, border facts

Upon assuming office, Biden has made a number of changes to Trump's immigration policy. Among other actions, Biden cut off funding for the construction of the border wall and suspended enrollment in the Migrant Protection Protocols program, which forced some migrants to remain in Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings. Has this created an unprecedented surge of migrants at the southern border?

Many in the media appear convinced that there is now a "border crisis." At his first press conference last Thursday, Biden was asked ten questions about his immigration policy and none of COVID-19. A representative sample:

[D]o you bear responsibility for everything that’s happening at the border now? I hear you talking a lot about the past administration. You decided to roll back some of those policies; did you move too quickly to roll back [Trump's] policies?

The focus on the alleged "border crisis" during the press conference is reflected in overall media coverage. This chart, via MuckRack, measures the number of articles from major outlets which use the term "border crisis" each month. Use of the term exploded this month.

Republican officials like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) are doing their best to encourage this kind of coverage. Over the weekend, Cruz led a delegation of Republican senators "to see the ongoing crisis at the border firsthand in Mission, Texas." Cruz claimed the crisis was a "direct consequence of policy decisions by the Biden administration to stop building the wall, to return to ‘catch and release,' and to end the ‘Stay in Mexico' policy." 

Cruz also released this hyperbolic video shot in the style of a wildlife documentary:

But Cruz's rhetoric and the recent spike in news coverage is not reflective of the reality at the southern border. The American Immigration Council produced this chart, which tracks apprehensions of individual adults, families, and unaccompanied minors over time. 

The surge in the apprehension of single adults began in April 2020, when all of Trump's policies were still in place. That is "when President Trump instituted the practice of expelling all individuals encountered at the border under public health authority allegedly provided by Title 42 of the U.S. Code." The figures include "people trying to cross multiple times, as primarily Mexican men are turned back within hours, letting them try again quickly." 

Despite Republican claims that Biden has embraced "open borders," the Biden administration has left Trump's policy of using Title 42 to immediately expel asylum seekers in place. Many groups who advocate for immigrant rights have harshly criticized Biden's policy. "The Biden administration’s use of Title 42 is flatly illegal. There is zero daylight between the Biden administration and Trump administration’s position," Lee Gelernt of the ACLU told the Los Angeles Times. Seeking asylum is not a crime — it's part of the nation's system of legal immigration. 

There is a smaller surge in the apprehensions of families and unaccompanied children. But that surge started in November 2020, when a court ruled "a federal judge ruled that doing so is a violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act." After that order was lifted this year, Biden did not resume using Title 42 to expel unaccompanied children, but there was no change in policy. In February, the Biden administration stopped immediately deporting most families as well. The Biden administration says that "this is because the Mexican government in the state of Tamaulipas has refused to accept the expulsions of certain families with especially young children." But the overall number of apprehensions of families and unaccompanied children remains far below what it was in 2019.

The narrative is that major changes in border policy have created a massive surge in migration. The reality is that Biden has not changed the most salient policies and the surge, which is far from unprecedented, began many months before Biden took office. 

The kids

There are over 16,000 unaccompanied minors who were apprehended at the border who are currently in the custody of the United States government. This is a record. And many are living in poor conditions that are not suitable for children — or anyone. 

Why are so many kids coming to the border alone? There hasn't been a major policy shift from the Biden administration regarding these children. It could be a build-up from when the Trump administration was using Title 42 to immediately deport unaccompanied minors. Or there may be a perception that they will be treated more humanely by the Biden administration. 

But children tend to migrate in waves and it's hard to figure out the reasons. A 2014 study by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which attempted to ascertain the reasons for a previous surge, concluded that "child migrants’ motives for migrating to the United States are often multifaceted and difficult to measure analytically." Although "the impacts of actual and perceived U.S. immigration policies have been widely debated, it remains unclear if, and how, specific immigration policies have motivated children to migrate to the United States." The CRS suggested that misconceptions about United States policy may influence children as much as the policies themselves. 

The Washington Post reports that "smugglers may have been exploiting potential clients by claiming it would be easier [for minors] to enter the United States once the Trump administration was gone." 

If these surges of minors have been a persistent problem, why is the United States so unprepared to deal with them? Why are kids sleeping on thin mats strewn across concrete floors? In The Atlantic, Caitlin Dickerson writes that policymakers are worried that spending money on better treatment of migrants, even children, will cause encourage more people to migrate. "The issue is not that the federal government is unable to handle the large numbers of children crossing the border now—rather, that it has been unwilling to spend the money required to process children more safely and comfortably, because of a concern about optics," according to Dickerson. 

It appears, however, that the Biden administration is taking steps to improve the situation. It has "launched an unprecedented effort to open more than 16,000 emergency beds for migrant children" in "nine emergency housing facilities." The new facilities will "get kids out of [Custom and Border Patrol]'s law enforcement facilities and into spaces staffed by child welfare professionals."