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What’s really going on at the border, explained

What we mean when we say there’s a border crisis.

People holding hands while wading across a wide river below a bridge, at dusk.
An immigrant family wades through the Rio Grande while crossing from Mexico into the United States on September 30, 2023, in Eagle Pass, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Republicans tried and failed to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Tuesday as part of their plan to use the southern border as a cudgel against President Joe Biden in 2024.

A lot of this is just political posturing. Republicans have every interest in making it seem as though Biden’s immigration policies (despite not being particularly permissive to migrants arriving at the border) have led to unmitigated chaos and that returning to the restrictionist agenda of former President Donald Trump is the answer.

Trump made this clear when he reportedly urged Republicans in Congress to turn against the bipartisan Senate border security bill scheduled for a vote Wednesday so that he could keep the issue alive through the presidential election. His supporters have largely fallen in line.

But that Republican maneuvering aside, there’s a deeper question: Is there actually a border crisis?

I would say yes, but not in the way that Republicans would describe it.

What Republican rhetoric on the border gets wrong

If there’s a single word that dominates Republican rhetoric on the border, it’s “invasion.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott invoked it in court when defending the concertina wire he has illegally strung along the border in Eagle Pass. So has Trump at his campaign rallies: “This is like a military invasion. Drugs, criminals, gang members, and terrorists are pouring into our country at record levels. ... They’re taking over our cities,” he said at an event in Nevada in December.

The word conjures vivid imagery of the US under threat from a foreign adversary, and that’s a deliberate misrepresentation of what’s happening at the border. Russia invaded Ukraine. Migrants are not invading the US under any similar understanding of the word. But Republicans have long demanded further militarization of the US border, and an “invasion” would seem to demand such a military solution.

“Invasion” rhetoric also serves to otherize migrants, many of whom are fleeing difficult and dangerous circumstances in their home countries in search of safety or economic opportunity. It echoes the way that Trump’s immigration policies often not so subtly played into white fear about the increasing diversification of the US population. Their chief architect, Stephen Miller, has promoted white nationalist writings, and Trump himself has a long history of enabling white supremacy.

Something they do get right

Republicans may be incendiary in the way that they describe what’s happening on the border. But there’s no question that the situation is dire: The number of times US immigration agents intercepted migrants attempting to cross the border exceeded 300,000 in December, up from about 250,000 in the same month last year. That’s more than has been recorded in a given month in over two decades.

Those numbers are largely driven by migrants coming from Central and South America, the Caribbean, Cuba, and Haiti, though Chinese migrants are the fastest-growing group of arrivals.

There are signs that migrant arrivals slowed in January, though US immigration officials have yet to release the official count for the month. Daily totals had just about halved by the end of January from their peak in December. But such a decline is typical over the winter months.

Cities are struggling to absorb migrants

Texas alone has sent over 100,000 migrants to blue cities including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, since 2022. Though these cities have always welcomed immigrants with “sanctuary” policies, they’re now struggling to absorb them in the numbers currently arriving.

A big concern is sheltering people, especially in the colder winter months. Chicago, for example, has resorted to warming them in idling buses, and watchdogs have raised concerns about the conditions in the shelters after a 5-year-old resident recently died.

It has left Democratic mayors calling for Congress to take action that likely won’t come given the polarized political environment.

The legal system is deeply broken

Migrants have a legal right, enshrined in US and international law, to seek asylum and are entitled to a fair hearing, the same as any citizen. But the legal system for evaluating whether migrants arriving at the border qualify for asylum or other humanitarian protections is deeply broken.

The immigration courts, which evaluate asylum and humanitarian claims, are chronically underfunded and have a backlog of more than 2 million cases. In 2023, resolving those cases took more than two years on average, during which time migrants may be detained or released into the US.

This reality doesn’t just arguably incentivize more migrants to seek to cross the border. It also shirks the US’s legal and moral obligations to asylum seekers. Many migrants are forced to navigate the process themselves: Unlike in the criminal court system, there is no guarantee of legal representation, even though immigration law is notorious for being second in complexity only to the US tax code, and some migrants may not even speak English.

This is untenable. But as I recently argued, the bill under consideration in the Senate doesn’t meaningfully address those problems, instead relying on a broad authority to turn away migrants at times of high demand. Any reforms would have to balance the US’s commitment to ensuring that migrants are not sent away to danger, as is required by law, with streamlining the process.

To start, the government could surge resources to the various steps of this process in the interest of speeding it up. That could include hiring and sending to the border more non-law enforcement personnel who are trained to evaluate asylum claims, as well as more immigration judges and court staff. And offering legal representation to migrants can make the proceedings smoother for all involved.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as though Congress is willing to entertain any such solutions right now.

This story appeared originally in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.

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