Chaos On The US-Mexico Border: America’s Most Important Political Issue – Analysis


The US-Mexico border is the border crossed by the largest number of people in the world, both legally and illegally. About 350 million people cross it legally every year. It is 3,145 km long and stretches from the Gulf of Mexico in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west.

From the Gulf of Mexico, it follows the course of the Rio Grande River to the border crossing between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso. West of the El Paso-Juárez agglomeration, it crosses vast parts of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts to the Colorado River Delta and the San Diego-Tijuana agglomeration, before reaching the Pacific Ocean. It passes through different terrains, from cities to deserts. In recent years, under the Democratic administration of Joe Biden, the situation at the border has become chaotic and anarchic.

Since millions of people from Mexico, the rest of Latin America, and the world want to enter the United States illegally, a humanitarian crisis has arisen at the border, and a political crisis in the US. Policy on the Mexican border and illegal immigrants has become a high-profile political issue ahead of the US presidential election in November.

Record number of illegal entries into the US

For a century and a half, the US-Mexico border has been the scene of illegal crossings, mostly by citizens of Latin American countries, who wanted to seek their fortune in America. However, in the last few decades and years, the situation has become even more complicated due to the huge number of illegals and the growing resistance of parts of American society that have an aversion to Latin American migrants.

The outbreak of the pandemic temporarily forced the border to close, slowing immigration. In April 2020, US border patrols recorded about 16,000 illegal border crossings – the lowest number in decades. Then the Trump administration invoked Article 42 of the US law and closed the border on the grounds to prevent the spread of an infectious disease. Under Article 42, immigrants were immediately deported to their home country or last country of transit without being held in US custody. But the calm was short-lived.

Many analysts praise Biden’s approach to immigration. Mere numbers deny it. In the weeks before, and especially after the Biden administration came to power in January 2021, the number of illegal crossings skyrocketed even though the new administration continued to use Article 42 until May 2023, when it declared the end of the state of emergency. The Biden administration then began to implement Article 8 of the US law, which deals with immigration. Migrants are taken into custody in the US, at least temporarily, to await a decision on whether they can receive asylum.

A record number of people are trying to cross the border. Since the start of 2021, the monthly number of migrant crossings has exceeded 200,000 on 10 occasions, a feat not seen since March 2000. Border apprehensions have increased sixfold from 2018 to 2022. More than 6.3 million illegal migrants have been apprehended under Biden, which is a higher number than during the administration of Donald Trump, Barack Obama or George W. Bush. Migrants mostly cross the border in the area of Tucson in Arizona, Del Rio in Texas and San Diego in California. Several Texas border cities, including El Paso and Laredo, have already declared a state of emergency due to migrant waves.

Biden’s fruitless border policy

On his first day in office, Biden stopped the construction of “Trump’s” wall on the Mexican border, ending the state of emergency declared by the Trump administration in February 2019. Apparently, this was the motive for some migrants to go on an adventure. Time has shown that Biden is also against mass illegal migration, he just wanted to solve this problem diplomatically, not by force. In March 2021, he told migrants “not to come” and that they can apply for asylum without leaving their countries.

That same month, he tasked his Vice President, Kamala Harris, with reducing the number of illegal immigrants. In June 2021, Harris visited Guatemala and Mexico in an effort to address Central American immigration. At a joint press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, Harris made an appeal to would-be migrants, saying: “I want to be clear to people in the region who are thinking about that dangerous journey to the US-Mexico border: Don’t come, don’t come.” They didn’t listen and the situation only continued to worsen.

A July 2023 survey conducted in four Central American countries found that many in those countries had heard (mis)information that the US had an “open borders” policy. The executive director of America’s Voice, a lobby group that promotes immigration reform, said people smugglers are spreading the false narrative of an “open border” to lure people to the US border under the impression they will be granted asylum upon arrival.

If future immigrants watched the performances of Democratic politicians and Biden himself in the 2020 campaign when they criticized Trump, they could reasonably conclude that the policy of the Democratic Party is an open-door policy. The Biden administration has partially embraced Trump’s border-hardening policies over time, announcing on July 28, 2022 that it would fill four wide gaps in Arizona near Yuma, an area with some of the busiest illegal crossing corridors. It is actually a partial rebuilding of Trump’s wall (a series of barriers) on the border with Mexico. In January 2023, Biden announced a program to strengthen the admission of immigrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela, while at the same time his administration will crack down on those who do not use the legal route to enter the country and strengthen border security. In May 2023, Biden ordered the deployment of 1,500 troops to the border to support Customs and Border Protection agents.

After months of negotiations, on February 4, 2024, a bipartisan group of senators released a 370-page bill intended to deter illegal immigrants. The bill included an “emergency border” provision that would automatically require the closure of the border with Mexico if there were 5,000 illegal crossings per day for several days. Trump and other Republicans have argued that the law allows 5,000 illegal border crossings a day. The law would abolish the practice of catching and releasing migrants. Instead, migrants would be detained pending hearings. The bill provided for a stricter asylum process as well as the hiring of thousands of additional border officers and increased detention capacity. Biden supported the bill and promised to close the border immediately if passed. Although it was supported by some conservative circles, the law failed in Congress due to Republican opposition.

The structure of immigrants

American border officials in November 2023 intercepted 235,000 illegal migrants who wanted to cross the border. In December, their number increased to 300,000. Of the total number of immigrants, Mexicans were the most numerous (56,236), followed by Venezuelans (46,937), followed by Guatemalans, Hondurans and Colombians.

It is interesting that there has been a sudden increase in the number of Chinese citizens crossing the Mexican-American border. The Border Patrol reported nearly 6,000 encounters with Chinese nationals on the southwest border in December 2023, up from about 900 a year earlier. More than 37,000 Chinese nationals were arrested at the border last year, about 50 times more than two years ago.

In January, the number of illegal crossings fell to 124,000, in February it rose to 140,000. According to the structure of immigrants, 54% of them traveled as singles, 41% with families, and 5% were unaccompanied minors. The number of families migrating illegally has increased. In December 2022, there were 61 thousand, and a year later 102 thousand.

Causes of the migrant crisis

American political scientist Elaine Kamarck cited four arguments why the migration pressure on the southern border will not stop: 1) the desire of people from all over the world to come to the US, not just from Mexico, 2) the complicated recruitment of Border Patrol agents, 3) the disparity of Border Patrol agents and migrants, 4) long-term underfunding has created huge backlogs in immigrant courts. The main causes of immigration are gang violence, poverty and economic inefficiency of Latin American countries, political repression and natural disasters. These causes will not disappear. Border agents can’t be hired overnight because it’s a demanding job that requires field work, and employees must first pass extensive security checks.

Although the number of immigrants quadrupled from 2018 to 2023, the number of border police officers did not, in fact, remained the same. As of January 2024, there was a backlog of 3.3 million cases in immigration courts. Migrants have a legal right, under US and international law, to seek asylum. However, the asylum system is dysfunctional. In 2023, it lasted more than two years on average. During this period, immigrants can be detained or released in the US. Many immigrants are forced to manage the asylum process on their own even though some do not speak English.

Great dissatisfaction of the Americans

A new survey by the Pew Center showed that the American public is mostly dissatisfied with the situation. As many as 8 in 10 American adults say the US government is doing a very or somewhat poor job of dealing with the large number of migrants who want to enter the US at the border with Mexico. And almost as many say that the situation is either a “crisis” (45%) or a “big problem” for the US (32%). Polls show that more than two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the Biden administration’s policy toward illegal Mexican border crossings.

It is not only Republicans who are unhappy with the influx of illegal immigrants. Democratic mayors in cities struggling to accept migrants also express their displeasure. Since 2022, the state of Texas has sent more than 100,000 migrants to the big “blue” cities that have a positive immigration policy: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles and Washington DC. Although these cities have always welcomed immigrants as “sanctuary cities” they are now struggling to absorb them due to the sheer numbers. A large number of immigrants are accepted in the colder winter months. Chicago has moved to heat buses that weren’t working, and NGOs have raised concerns about conditions in shelters after a five-year-old boy at a shelter recently died. That’s why Democratic mayors have called on the US Congress to take action that won’t follow given the polarization of that body.

Aggressive rhetoric of Republicans

Biden’s inept handling of the immigration crisis is a gift to Donald Trump. Republicans call the events at the border an invasion. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott used the term invasion in court when he defended the razor wire he illegally installed along the border at Eagle Pass. Like Trump at the election rallies: “This is like a military invasion. Drugs, criminals, gang members and terrorists are pouring into our country in record numbers. … They are taking over our cities,” he said at an event in Nevada in December.

Republicans use the term invasion intentionally to draw comparisons with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The goal of the Republicans is to militarize the border, i.e. to make it an impenetrable military fortress. Although the situation on the Mexican-US border is not an invasion, it’s chaotic and generates a humanitarian crisis. In the campaign, Trump claims that he will treat the issue of the Mexican border as a matter of national security. He promised to launch “the largest domestic deportation operation” in US history, to deploy military troops to the border, and if necessary to engage in offensive military actions against drug cartels in Mexico and elsewhere in the region. In this way, he scores political points with voters who fear waves of migrants.

Immigrants – burden or advantage of the economy

A recently released forecast by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected a $7 trillion increase in national GDP and $1 trillion in income as a result of immigration. The chairman of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, noted that the increase in the number of immigrant workers after the pandemic is a significant factor in the improvement of the economy, including the reduction of inflation.

And some other studies deny the opinion that immigrants are attracted by the benefits of social programs. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that undocumented immigrants pay about $11.74 billion a year in state and local taxes. A study by the US Department of Health and Human Services found that between 2005 and 2014, refugees and asylum seekers contributed $63 billion more in income than they received in social benefits.

However, the problem with such studies is that they blur legal and illegal migrants. The US would never be the most powerful country in the world if it wasn’t a country of immigrants from the beginning, but illegal immigration brings challenges. According to a 2023 study by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), illegal immigrants cost the US (federal government and states) about $150.7 billion annually. The figure is higher than the combined GDP of the states of Mississippi ($146.7 billion in 2023), New Mexico ($131.5 billion), Idaho ($119.8 billion) and is higher than the GDP of Wyoming and Vermont combined ($94 billion). These funds are paid by American taxpayers. The FAIR study found that each illegal immigrant or their US-born child costs American taxpayers $8,776 a year.

Immigrants – between exemplary citizens and criminals

Immigrants are often associated with crime. Speaking in February in Eagle Pass, Texas, Trump cited the case of a 22-year-old nurse who was brutally murdered by a migrant from Venezuela. He highlighted the “migrant crime of Biden” and blamed him for allowing millions of people to come to the US from other countries. “And they come from prisons and they come from mental institutions and they come from insane asylums and they are terrorists”.

Available studies do not confirm this. According to research by immigration expert Alex Nowrasteh, from 2012 to 2022, illegal immigrants have a 14% lower homicide conviction rate than native-born Americans. Legal immigrants have a 62% lower homicide rate and illegal immigrants a 41% lower criminal conviction rate than US citizens. At the beginning of this year, when asked specifically about the impact of immigration on crime in the US, 57% of Americans surveyed said that the large number of migrants entering the country leads to an increase in crime.

A certain number of immigrants are truly criminal in nature – they belong to the circles of various criminal organizations such as drug cartels and other organized crime organizations that deal with smuggling of people, weapons, cyber crime, robberies, kidnappings, money laundering. According to the statistics of the border police, more than 15,000 people with criminal records were apprehended at the border in 2023, up from 12,000 the year before. So far, in the fiscal year 2024, about 5,600 criminals have been arrested. The Border Patrol conducts a criminal background check on immigrants before letting them into the US for an asylum hearing. Pete Hermansen, a retired top Border Patrol agent, said that over his two-decade career, he noticed a statistical pattern in the apprehension of migrants at the border: “87 percent come here just to improve their lives. 13 percent is a threat to the country.”

What to do next?

Practice has shown that the Trump-Biden conflict had a negative impact on the problem of illegal migration, as well as on other areas of US politics. Although in the initial weeks of his tenure, Biden mainly went to dismantle Trump’s legacy, the perception that the cabinet of Democrats is for open borders, influenced the creation of an impression in the countries of Latin America, that America is open a state for all. This is not so, but once an impression is established it is difficult to change.

The issue of the Mexican-US border is one of the most important issues in the 2024 election campaign. Regardless of its outcome, the problem of protecting the American southern border as well as the problem of illegal migrants will remain a challenge that American policymakers will have to deal with in the coming years, perhaps even decades.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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