Latinx Files: The trouble with the border ‘crisis’

Latinx Files: The trouble with the border ‘crisis’

Originally Published in the Los Angeles Times

Opinion by Fidel Martinez - March 25, 2021

Men, women and children along a railing.

Families with children older than 7 are being returned to Mexico soon after crossing illegally. They have no money and say they won’t go back to Guatemala. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

If you’ve kept up with the news in the last month, chances are you’ve heard or read about what’s often called a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, where people from Central America have been migrating in waves after Joe Biden became president.

The numbers paint a more complicated picture. One recent analysis published by the Washington Post of data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection found no such crisis. Tom K. Wong, associate professor and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at UC San Diego, and UCSD graduate students Gabriel De Roche and Jesus Rojas Venzor attributed the rise in apprehensions to the seasonal nature of undocumented immigration, which has historically gone up during this time of the year. There was a similar uptick in apprehensions around this time in 2018 and 2019.

But what about the fact that border crossings are on pace to be the highest in two decades? According to Wong, De Roche and Rojas Venzor, that increase is due at least partially to the pandemic. They note that “in fiscal year 2021, it appears that migrants are continuing to enter the United States in the same numbers as in fiscal year 2019 — plus the pent-up demand from people who would have come in fiscal year 2020, but for the pandemic.”

Their conclusion — that the numbers risk being blown out of proportion and need proper context — is consistent with what my colleague Cindy Carcamo wrote about in her explainer from last week on the rise in the number of unaccompanied minors at the border.

Carcamo points out that Customs and Border Protection changed their terminology in 2020, moving from apprehensions to encounters. “It’s problematic to compare them, because encounters can mean multiple attempted crossings by one person, artificially inflating the numbers,” she notes. “CBP estimates the rate of recidivism, or repeat crossings, at 40%.”

But the real tragedy in all of this is that it doesn’t seem to matter what’s really going on at the border.

The moment the phrase “border crisis” is uttered, it is willed into existence. Broadcast media aren’t helping. According to an analysis by Media Matters, a left-leaning watchdog group, the major television news outlets have used the word “surge” or border “crisis” at least 138 times in 2021. Just last week, ABC News’ Sunday punditry show, “This Week,” filmed next to the border wall in El Paso.

If you repeat it enough, folks will believe it’s definite. Once they do, the optics of a crisis at the border become a liability for one political party and a weapon for the other.

Last week, the Democratic-controlled House passed a bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for so-called Dreamers and would grant permanent residence to people with temporary protection status. I don’t need a crystal ball to tell you that this bill doesn’t have a chance in the Senate under current rules.

Nearly all legislation currently requires 60 votes to circumvent a Senate filibuster. Democrats have an option to enact policy through a special legislative procedure that doesn’t allow for a filibuster and would require only 50 votes for passage. But there are limitations to what kind of legislation can be approved in this method, such as that all policies have to be directly related to the federal budget, and it is unclear how much immigration policy can be enacted this way.

Senate Democrats do not have the 60 votes they would need. Their Republican colleagues have all but said so themselves.

“Unfortunately, what’s happening at the border right now is going to inflame people’s emotions a lot, and I think make anything harder to do, which I think is very regrettable,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) recently told reporters.

“I think it’s going to be really hard to get a bipartisan bill put together on anything that has a legalization component until you stop the flow,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has been on both sides of the immigration reform debate so many times that his position on the matter also feels cyclical.

We have been here before. Democrats held the House and the Senate at the start of Barack Obama’s presidency, and there was promise of immigration reform. Then it was derailed by a manufactured crisis at the border, and nothing came to pass.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

For Boston Globe opinion columnist Marcela Garcia, the fixation on calling it a crisis does more harm than it helps.

“We’re seeing another cycle of overblown rhetoric about the border,” she writes. “The nation has a new chance at passing historic immigration legislation that fully embraces the millions of undocumented young people and workers living in the shadows, and other Biden-sponsored plans to give targeted aid to Central America. Instead, we’re debating semantics. That’s the real crisis.”




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