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Why Is There a Border Crisis?

The complicated reality of how the border got out of control

July 2024

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

We’ve all seen the stories.

Border Patrol, overwhelmed.

American cities, stretched to their financial limits.

The southern border, out of control.

There’s a reason that so many people these days are referring to it as “the border crisis.”

And … that’s not quite right.

Because it’s about 10 different crises.

I mean … you didn’t think this one was going to be easy, did you?

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

America is a nation of immigrants … kinda.

While the U.S. has historically been much more open to newcomers than other nations, throughout our history we’ve also teetered back and forth on the question of just how many immigrants the country should take in.i

Americans have passionate views on both sides of that issue, but what makes today’s situation at the southern border so different from immigration debates of the past is that this time our views … don’t really factor in.

Millions of people are arriving at our southern border not because we’ve chosen to let them in after a prolonged debate, but because we’ve lost control of the situation. After all, both Republicans and Democrats have said the border is “broken,” but none of them seem able to fix it.

So, what’s going on here? If pretty much everyone agrees there’s a problem, why can’t we seem to do anything about it?

Let’s start with the basics. Even under the best-case scenario, controlling the border isn’t easy. At nearly 2,000 miles, the border between the U.S. and Mexico is one of the longest in the world. ii It’s the biggest intersection of a wealthy country and a poor country anywhere on the planet.iii And it’s also the world’s busiest border, with around a million people and $1.5 billion worth of goods crossing every day.iv

And that’s why this problem isn’t exactly new. For decades, hundreds of thousands of people a year — and in the worst years, over a million — have attempted to cross the border illegally. v What is new, however, is the sheer number of people coming — and who they are.

In 2019, before the pandemic led to a steep drop off in immigration, the Border Patrol encountered over 850,000 people trying to come through illegally.vi And that seemed like a lot at the time; more than the country had seen in a dozen years. But by 2023 the number had reached over two million.vii

The kinds of migrants coming have changed too. Up until recently, illegal border crossings were mostly attempted by individual adults. In recent years, however, there’s been a significant uptick in the number of families attempting to cross — and the number of unaccompanied minors.viii

There’s also been a shift in where people are coming from. Historically, illegal border crossings were dominated by individuals from Mexico. Then, about, a decade ago, citizens from Central America’s “Northern Triangle” — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — became the majority.ix

These days not only are there huge spikes from elsewhere in Latin America,x but there are eye-popping numbers coming from the other side of the world.

In 2023, there were nearly 25,000 encounters with people from China at the southern border, over 40,000 with people from India,xi and almost 60,000 with people from Africa.xii

And these shifting trends in who’s coming are also a big part of the reason that the whole process is now so chaotic.

Our policies at the southern border were designed for an era in which the majority of attempted crossings were individuals coming from Mexico.xiii Catch someone coming in illegally in that situation and you can just turn them around and send them back. But that requires a diplomatic agreement with the country you’re sending them back to — which we don’t have with, for instance, India.xiv

And this is where this all starts to get really, really complicated. And probably a little surprising.

When most of us think about people trying to come to the U.S. through Mexico, we likely think of individuals trying to sneak over the border undetected. But that view is largely outdated.

While those kinds of unauthorized entries were a huge problem in the early 2000s, better border control saw them collapse in the years that followed.xv Now, those numbers are going back up in recent years,xvi but that’s largely because the Border Patrol is preoccupied dealing with the people … who are trying to get caught.xvii

One of the pillars of American immigration law is asylum status: the country’s willingness to take in people who could face persecution in their home country. It’s a policy reflective of America’s deepest values — and it’s also a big part of the problem here.

Many of the migrants showing up at the border without permission claim asylum status as their ticket into the U.S. — more than 800,000 of them in the 2023 fiscal year alone.xviii But figuring out whether or not they actually qualify for asylum is a long and complicated legal process. And, given the sheer volume of people coming in these days, we’ve basically lost the ability to do it effectively.

Asylum cases are decided by immigration judges. The country has around 650 of them. And as of 2023, they had a backlog of over two million cases.xix As a result, many asylum applicants are released into the country to await their day in court — which is often years in the future. As of the spring of 2023, the wait in cities like Los Angeles or Chicago was four years. In New York City, it was 10.xx

And that might not be that big a problem if most of these asylum claims panned out — but in recent years, immigration courts have granted asylum in only about 15 percent of those cases. xxi

Now, it may seem obvious that we just need to turn more of the most clearly bogus asylum cases away at the border, but … who’s going to do it? Between 2018 and 2023, the number of migrant encounters at the southern border went up by over 400 percent. Meanwhile, the number of Border Patrol agents handling those encounters … declined. xxii

All of which puts things into perspective a bit. After all, there are lots of important debates about immigration policy: How many people should we let in? Based on what standard? But until we regain control of the border … we can’t do anything meaningful about any of those questions.

So, the debate these days isn’t really about what kind of immigration policy we should have. It’s about whether we have any immigration policy at all.

Source(s)

  1. "A Brief History of U.S. Immigration Policy From the Colonial Period to the Present Day" (Andrew M. Baxter and Alex Nowrasteh)  Cato Institute
  2. "Length of Longest International Land Borders Worldwide" (Einar H. Dyvik)  Statista
  3. "Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide" (Peter Andreas)  Brown University
  4. "The US-Mexico Border and Mexican Migration to the United States: A 21st Century Review" (Jacqueline Mazza SAIS Review of International Affairs
  5. "What’s Happening at the U.S.-Mexico Border in 7 Charts" (John Gramlich and Alissa Scheller)  Pew Research Center
  6. Southwest Border Migration FY 2019  U.S. Customs and Border Protection
  7. Nationwide Encounters   U.S. Customs and Border Protection
  8. U.S. Border Patrol Encounters at the Southwest Border: Fact Sheet  Congressional Research Service
  9. Ibid.
  10. "What’s Happening at the U.S.-Mexico Border in 7 Charts" (John Gramlich and Alissa Scheller)  Pew Research Center
  11. Nationwide Encounters   U.S. Customs and Border Protection
  12. "African Migration to the U.S. Soars as Europe Cracks Down" (Miriam Jordan)  New York Times
  13. "Why Biden’s Border Policies Haven’t Been Working" (Katherine Camberg)  American Enterprise Institute
  14. "What’s Behind the Rise in Undocumented Indian Immigrants Crossing U.S. Borders on Foot" (Sakshi Venkatraman)  NBC News
  15. Department of Homeland Security Border Security Metrics Report: 2022  U.S. Department of Homeland Security
  16. Ibid.
  17. "U.S. Faces ‘Unprecedented’ Border Surge as Immigration Deal Stalls in D.C." (Nick Miroff Washington Post
  18. "Asylum in America, by the Numbers" (Eileen Sullivan)  New York Times
  19. U.S. Immigration Courts See a Significant and Growing Backlog  U.S. Government Accountability Office
  20. "Immigrants Waiting 10 Years in Us Just To Get a Court Date" (Elliot Spagat)  Associated Press 
  21. "The Crisis at the Border: A Primer for Confused Americans" (Elina Treyger and Shelly Culbertson)  RAND Corporation 
  22. "Fixing the Border: Four Reasons the Immigration Crisis Isn’t Going Away" (Elaine Kamarck)  Brookings Institution

Shownotes

Sound | Musicbed: "Chasing Time" David A Molina, "Endure" David A Molina"Humboldt" Kingpinguin // Premium Beat: "Back Streets" Sounds Supreme, "Don't Wait" Oliver Lyu // Artlist: "The Undertake" Borrtex, "Morning Sunbeams " Yehezkel Raz

Footage | Fox News // Gallup // WYFF // Axios // Brookings // Newsweek // Pew Research Center // RAND Corporation // NBC News // The Hill // New York Times: Miriam Jordan, Paul Krugman, Michael D. Shear,  Hamed Aleaziz and Zolan Kanno-Youngs // The Washington Post: Amber Phillips // CNBC News // Congressional Research Service // U.S. Customs and Border Protection // African Union // Artlist: 21 Aerials // C Records // Envato Elements: diegograndi, Fotografiche, Galyna_Andrushko, Heyengel, ivanmorenosl, Jacksonnick, Karandaev, LightField Studios, LightField Studios, LightFieldStudios, LightFieldStudios, Photovs, SeanPavonexapdemolle //  Getty: Anadolu, Anadolu, CHRIS WILKINS / Stringer, Christophe Calais, David Dee Delgado / Stringer, Ernst Haas, GUILLERMO ARIAS, Joe Raedle, Joe Raedle, John Moore, JOSEPH PREZIOSO, NewsHour Productions - Footage, REBECCA NOBLE, Spencer Platt / Staff, Stringr, UCG, VCG, Alexi Rosenfeld, Anadolu/Footage, Anadolu/Footage, Anadolu/Footage, Brandon Bell, grandriver, Gregory Christopher Lindsey, Hal Bergman, John Moore, John Moore, John Moore, John Moore, John Moore, John Moore, John Moore, John Moore, John Moore, John Moore, John Moore, John Moore, John Moore, John Moore, Mario Tama, Anadolu/Footage, David Dee Delgado / Stringer, grandriver, Houston Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images / Contributor, John Moore, John Moore, John Moore / Staff, PATRICK T. FALLON / Contributor, THEPALMER, THEPALMERPATRICK T. FALLON / Contributor // The Internet Archive: Prelinger Archives // Unsplash: Julien Doclot, Justin SchülerTy Feague // Anomie // Gobierno Bolivariano de Venezuela // Madden // Myriam Thyes // SKopp // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.

Sources

  1. Cato Institute
    "A Brief History of U.S. Immigration Policy From the Colonial Period to the Present Day" (Andrew M. Baxter and Alex Nowrasteh)
  2. Statista
    "Length of Longest International Land Borders Worldwide" (Einar H. Dyvik)
  3. Brown University
    "Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide" (Peter Andreas)
  4. SAIS Review of International Affairs
    "The US-Mexico Border and Mexican Migration to the United States: A 21st Century Review" (Jacqueline Mazza)
  5. Pew Research Center
    "What’s Happening at the U.S.-Mexico Border in 7 Charts" (John Gramlich and Alissa Scheller)
  6. U.S. Customs and Border Protection
    Southwest Border Migration FY 2019 
  7. U.S. Customs and Border Protection
    Nationwide Encounters  
  8. Congressional Research Service
    U.S. Border Patrol Encounters at the Southwest Border: Fact Sheet 
  9. New York Times
    "African Migration to the U.S. Soars as Europe Cracks Down" (Miriam Jordan)
  10. American Enterprise Institute
    "Why Biden’s Border Policies Haven’t Been Working" (Katherine Camberg) 
  11. NBC News
    "What’s Behind the Rise in Undocumented Indian Immigrants Crossing U.S. Borders on Foot" (Sakshi Venkatraman)
  12. U.S. Department of Homeland Security
    Department of Homeland Security Border Security Metrics Report: 2022 
  13. Washington Post
    "U.S. Faces ‘Unprecedented’ Border Surge as Immigration Deal Stalls in D.C." (Nick Miroff
  14. New York Times
    "Asylum in America, by the Numbers" (Eileen Sullivan)
  15. U.S. Government Accountability Office
    U.S. Immigration Courts See a Significant and Growing Backlog 
  16. Associated Press 
    "Immigrants Waiting 10 Years in Us Just To Get a Court Date" (Elliot Spagat)
  17. RAND Corporation 
    "The Crisis at the Border: A Primer for Confused Americans" (Elina Treyger and Shelly Culbertson)
  18. Brookings Institution
    "Fixing the Border: Four Reasons the Immigration Crisis Isn’t Going Away" (Elaine Kamarck) 

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