If you’ve been watching the news over the past few weeks, you might have heard that there is a crisis at the US-Mexico border. Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Alejandro Mayorkas has already made three visits to the border since taking office in February. In Congress, House minority leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy has proclaimed a “Humanitarian crisis, public health crisis [and] national security crisis” unfolding at the US-Mexico border.
Political concern has, in turn, spurred a wave of media coverage. The Washington Post declared recently that the Biden administration faced the biggest “border surge” in twenty years, predicting that there may be as many as “two million migrants at the southern border.” This story was seemingly so urgent that ABC News chose to run the entirety of a recent edition of “This Week,” the network’s Sunday news talk show, from the El Paso section of the border wall.
The alarming statistics presented in this media coverage are often juxtaposed against images and videos of people in desperate situations, living in informal settlements, or sitting stranded in the shadow of the border. Rhetorically, the people in these images are reduced to floods, waves, or surges threatening to overwhelm the laws, institutions, and government officials that claim to keep us safe.
Despite this rhetoric, it is hard to know what exactly this “crisis” amounts to. The Post’s article cites US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data which shows that there has been a rise in “Southwest Land Border Encounters,” up to 172,331 in March, surpassing the most recent peak of 144,116 in May 2019. Yet the concept of the “Southwest Land Border Encounter” is a novel and deeply unspecific metric. In fact, it tells us more about the rhetorical functions of crisis — and their uses for agencies like the CBP — than it does about unauthorized migration.
Here, it is worth noting how much these symptoms of “crisis” in fact owe to US government policy. Illustrative was the decision taken last March, when the Trump administration invoked Title 42, an arcane public health statute from 1944. Previously, people attempting to enter the United States without authorization were placed into legal proceedings in immigration court. Under the authority of Title 42, however, people caught by CBP are quickly removed to Mexico, their home country, or a third country without meaningful due process.
In practice, Title 42 has created an unprecedented situation in which nearly every person who is apprehended after entering the United States without authorization, including those seeking humanitarian protection, is immediately removed from the United States. As a result, thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers have become stranded on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border.
Following the Trump administration’s decision to invoke Title 42, CBP changed the way that it reported data on unauthorized border crossings, shifting from measuring “apprehensions” to “Southwest Land Border Encounters.” Unlike data on apprehensions, the encounters metric measures the number of times CBP encountered someone who was crossing the border without authorization or was determined to be inadmissible after coming to a port of entry without proper documentation.
The “encounters” metric doesn’t track who was apprehended, how many people were actually allowed to enter the United States, or how many times any given person attempted to enter the United States during a specific time period. While US Customs and Border Protection hasn’t offered a detailed explanation for this change in terminology, the term “apprehension” has a specific definition under US immigration law. Expulsions carried out under Title 42 don’t meet this legal standard. CBP has seemingly developed “Southwest Land Border Encounters” as a catchall term to describe an unprecedented practice of extralegal removal.
In this context, data showing an increase in CBP “encounters” cannot reliably tell us whether our present so-called crisis reflects an increase in the absolute number of people attempting to enter the United States, or an uptick in the number of attempted crossings made by increasingly desperate people stranded in a precarious humanitarian limbo.
To paraphrase Stuart Hall, the ideological function of data on “Southwest Land Border Encounters” is to ground free floating and controversial impressions in the hard, incontrovertible soil of numbers. It is a kind of rhetorical masterstroke, simultaneously raising alarm about a “surge” of migrants while masking the fact that the border is more closed off to those seeking humanitarian protection than perhaps ever before.
Yet, making sense of this data is beside the point of “crisis.” Crisis has become a narrative rather than a descriptive device, foreclosing any possibility of analysis. Reflecting on Anglophone media coverage of migration in Europe since 2015, Nick Dines, Nicola Montagna, and Elena Vaccheli suggest that “crisis does not simply describe a set of conjunctures … [but] when invoked, produces a set of meanings that structure knowledge of social phenomena and crucially, shape policy decisions and governance structures.” Crisis has become, as Janet Roitman suggests, a kind of “diagnostic of the present,” a way to understand and make sense of experience rather than a signifier of a critical or decisive moment.
In the United States, the central ideological function of the rhetoric of border crisis is to frame certain patterns of mobility as threats to national stability, thereby invoking a predetermined response that requires punitive policies of deterrence and control. Rep. McCarthy’s claim that there is an ongoing “Biden border crisis” invokes what the anthropologist Leo R. Chavez calls the “Latino threat,” a dominant narrative frame in which Latino immigrants are understood as a threat to the demographic and social stability of white-dominated American society.
Within the crisis narrative, state violence is the only legitimate response to the threat posed by migration. As Texas congressman Michael McCaul put it in an interview with ABC News held in the shadow of a section of the border wall near El Paso, “deterrence is the key here.”
By looking at periods of border crisis critically, we can see that what is changing is less patterns of migration than the ways in which migration is controlled and policed. In the United States, the total number of yearly apprehensions of unauthorized migrants peaked in 2000, and net unauthorized migration has been zero or negative since 2009. Yet, the scope, scale, and cost of migration control has ballooned nonetheless.
Since 2003, the combined annual budgets of Federal immigration enforcement agencies have nearly tripled, and the number of people employed by both CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has nearly doubled. From 2003 to 2019, the number of people forcibly removed from the US by ICE every year more than doubled to 133,525. What is truly being transformed during periods of crisis is the power of the Federal government to surveil, control, and expel migrants.
Looking back over the past forty years, we can see how this unending condition of crisis has dominated US immigration policy. In an effort to combat perceptions of disorder in the period after the Mariel Boatlift in 1981, the Reagan administration oversaw the creation of the first modern immigration detention facilities and began the buildup of enforcement infrastructure that has come to dominate how we understand the US-Mexico border. After signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, Reagan declared that the “challenge to US sovereignty [posed] by the problem of illegal immigration” had been solved.
Yet, the so-called crisis was far from over. The perception that unauthorized immigration threatened to overwhelm public institutions continued to dominate public opinion. In 1994, the state of California passed Proposition 187 outlawing unauthorized immigrants from accessing social services including health care and public education. Later that year, a front-page story in the New York Times declared that the “Porous Deportation System Gives Criminals Little to Fear,” recounting the story of Jorge Luis Garza, a Mexican immigrant and supposed “thief, burglar, and heroin addict.”
So-called “criminal aliens” such as Garza served as powerful specters that haunted the public imagination, producing visions of chaos and crisis at the border. Sensing this public pressure, the Clinton administration passed two hugely punitive immigration reform laws in 1996, and pursued the unprecedented militarization of the US-Mexico border through the strategy of “prevention through deterrence.”
In the period after September 11, 2001, the Bush administration poured money into immigration enforcement measures, framing border militarization as a key facet of the War on Terror. This transformed the entire machinery of immigration enforcement, reconstituting the Immigration and Naturalization Service as a component of the Department of Homeland Security and creating Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) out of thin air in the process. Ten years later, DHS was the third largest Federal Agency, managing 225,000 employees, a $60 billion budget, and unprecedented power to enforce immigration laws.
A Humanitarian Disaster
Even as patterns of forced displacement in Central America have changed who is arriving at the US-Mexico border, the narrative of border crisis has prevented us from understanding migration as anything other than a social threat. From 2011 to 2019, the number of children placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) by CBP increased more than sevenfold. Ninety-three percent of children placed in ORR custody in 2019 were from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. Rather than a genuine system of humanitarian protection and due process, the Obama administration pursued what it described as “[a]n aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers.”
This included $3.73 billion in supplemental funding for border enforcement and the creation of two new ICE facilities to incarcerate women and children. While President Obama famously remarked that he wanted to focus immigration enforcement on “felons not families,” in practice his administration ended up locking up a lot of families, too.
A 2018 investigation by the DHS Office of Inspector General found that the Obama administration violated federal procurement laws in the rush to set up twenty-four hundred new family detention beds at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. To solve this crisis, as then Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told Congress in 2014, “people in Central America need to see illegal migrants coming back.” In practice, what Johnson was describing was the mass deportation of women and children seeking asylum.
As long as we remain stuck in the protracted condition of border crisis, we will only get newer and more spectacular polices of deterrence. As ABC News correspondent Matt Gutman, reporting on the increase in the number of minors in CBP custody noted unironically “the border wall has failed to contain this humanitarian disaster.” While Federal agencies scramble to find basic humanitarian shelter for thousands of families and children seeking asylum, the number of people held in immigration detention has dropped to its lowest point in twenty years. The laws, institutions, and infrastructures bequeathed to us by our former solutions to crisis are entirely unfit to solve our actual problems.
What our current so-called border crisis tells us is that we are desperately in need of a new way of making sense of the social facts of migration. Rather than coding migration as a racialized threat or symptom of social disequilibrium, we need new modes of discourse and governance that understand mobility as a basic, foundational aspect of social life. To move forward we must reject the rhetoric of crisis.