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Asylum seekers from Honduras walk toward a US Border Patrol checkpoint near Mission, Texas, on March 23.
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9 questions about the humanitarian crisis on the border, answered

Unaccompanied migrant children are coming in record numbers — but it’s not the kind of crisis you might think it is.

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.

The left is criticizing the administration’s inhumane treatment of record numbers of unaccompanied migrant children arriving from Central America as thousands are being kept in jail-like facilities — the same “cages” that drew condemnation in 2019 under then-President Donald Trump. The right is falsely claiming that Biden inherited a secure border from his predecessor and that his policies have led to a national security crisis.

Meanwhile, media coverage of the border has been hyperbolic, depicting a “surge” of migrants overwhelming the US border. Five of the nine reporters at Biden’s press conference on Thursday asked questions about immigration.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the same humanitarian crisis has been playing out since at least 2014, when the US saw a dramatic shift in the kinds of migrants who were arriving at the southern border. Formerly mostly single Mexican adults, the migrants now include a growing number of families and children from Central America’s “Northern Triangle”: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

President Biden and Vice President Harris meet with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and other immigration advisers on March 24.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As a solution, the Biden administration is racing to open more beds in shelters designed to care for children while telling migrants thinking about making the perilous journey north, “Don’t come.” Biden has appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to oversee the response.

“We’re building back up the capacity that should have been maintained and built upon that Trump dismantled,” Biden said during a press conference Thursday.

But while increasing capacity to welcome these unaccompanied children will help assuage the immediate humanitarian crisis at the border, how to prevent migrants from coming at all is a much more difficult problem. Migration at the southern border has for years been driven by longstanding instability in Central America that has only intensified amid the pandemic and has forced many to leave their home countries.

1) What is going on at the US-Mexico border?

The Biden administration is struggling to accommodate an increasing number of unaccompanied children arriving on the border. About 70 percent of them are teenagers, but hundreds are under the age of 12.

As of March 24, more than 5,100 such children, a record number, were in US Customs and Border Protection custody, staying in unsuitable, jail-like facilities, often for longer than the 72-hour legal limit.

Another 11,900 children were in custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. Those children are staying either in permanent shelters — state-licensed facilities that are better equipped to administer care but have had to slash capacity amid the pandemic — or in temporary influx facilities that have comparatively little oversight. So far, the Biden administration has opened or is in the processing of opening six of these temporary facilities in Texas and California and is trying to expand space in others.

The Biden administration has been racing to transfer children in CBP custody to these HHS facilities. It is also working to release children more quickly to sponsors, including family members or foster families, in the US. But it hasn’t been able to keep pace with the number of new arrivals.

A temporary Customs and Border Protection processing center in Donna, Texas. The administration has barred media access to these kinds of facilities, with the exception of one in Carrizo Springs, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images

The increase in arrivals among unaccompanied children is happening even though, for the most part, the border remains closed. Last March, at the outset of the pandemic, Trump invoked Title 42, a section of the Public Health Safety Act that allows the US government to temporarily block noncitizens from entering the US “when doing so is required in the interest of public health.” Since then, more than 514,000 migrants have been expelled, including more than 13,000 children.

Biden has chosen to keep the policy in place. He has carved out some exceptions: In addition to unaccompanied children, the administration has started processing 28,000 people who were sent back to Mexico to await their immigration court hearings in the US under a Trump-era program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or the “Remain in Mexico” program.

The administration has also been admitting many families to the US because a change in Mexican law has limited the country’s capacity to detain those with young children. A CBP official told reporters on Friday that agents are encountering about 2,300 parents and children daily and 1,900 are being allowed to stay in the US.

2) Who are the migrants arriving on the US-Mexico border?

For decades, single adult men from Mexico made up the majority of those attempting to cross the US-Mexico border. But in 2014, the US started seeing many more families and unaccompanied children making the journey — a trend that has continued.

They are primarily coming from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, which for years have been suffering from gang-related violence, government corruption, frequent extortion, and some of the highest rates of poverty and violent crime in the world.

The pandemic-related economic downturn and a pair of hurricanes late last year that devastated Honduras and Guatemala in particular have only exacerbated those more longstanding problems. Many people are hoping to apply for asylum or other humanitarian protections, and the US is obligated by federal law and international human rights agreements to give them that chance.

The majority of unaccompanied children arriving on the border also have family in the US, so they’re aiming to reunite with their relatives.

A child’s abandoned shoe lies near a river close to the US-Mexico border on March 24.
John Moore/Getty Images

In addition, thousands of asylum seekers have been waiting in Mexico for months or years due to Trump-era policies that kept them out, including Title 42 and the Migrant Protection Protocols. More than 71,000 asylum seekers were also stranded in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols.

While the Biden administration has started processing people with active cases, many people whose cases were closed are also still waiting in Mexico in the hope that they will eventually be processed. (Biden administration officials have signaled that they eventually intend to identify those people and admit them to the US for a chance to seek protection.)

3) Are we really seeing more migrants?

CBP encountered more than 100,000 migrants at the southern border in February, including more than 9,000 unaccompanied children and nearly 19,000 families, though only a fraction of them have been admitted to the US due to Title 42, the public health restrictions on border crossings. Those numbers are expected to be even higher by the end of March.

Single adults still account for the vast majority of people who are arriving (about 71 percent), but the number of unaccompanied children arriving on the border is unprecedented. There are more than 17,000 currently in government custody and an average of 466 arriving daily as of March 24. By comparison, CBP apprehended 11,475 unaccompanied children in May 2019, the last time that migration levels spiked. (It doesn’t make sense to compare to 2020 levels because movement dramatically dropped off at the outset of the pandemic, particularly after Title 42 was implemented.)

Though Biden administration officials have warned that the US could encounter more migrants on the southern border than they have in 20 years, experts have cautioned against calling the current flow of migrants a “surge” for several reasons.

Migration levels tend to fluctuate based on the season. The number of migrants arriving on the border has historically increased in the warmer months between about February and June when the journey is less treacherous than it would be in the hot summer sun.

What we’re observing on the border is in part a “predictable seasonal shift,” as Tom K. Wong, an associate professor at the University of California San Diego, and his co-authors write in the Washington Post.

“When the numbers drop again in June and July, policymakers may be tempted to claim that their deterrence policies succeeded. But that will just be the usual seasonal drop,” they write.

There was also an almost 50 percent drop in migration at the border following the implementation of the pandemic-era border restrictions last March, rather than a typical seasonal increase. It’s likely that those restrictions “delayed prospective migrants rather than deterred them — and they’re arriving now,” they add.

US Border Patrol agents take asylum seekers into custody in McAllen, Texas, on March 23.
John Moore/Getty Images

There’s also reason to believe the number of migrants encountered by Border Patrol overall is inflated. Title 42 created perverse incentives for single adults to attempt to cross the border multiple times. Before the pandemic, they might have been dissuaded from trying again for fear of facing criminal prosecution for illegal entry and disqualifying themselves from legal migration pathways, such as asylum. But under the pandemic-era process, they are merely fingerprinted, processed, and dropped off in Mexico without consequence.

CBP estimates that the resulting recidivism rate — the number of people who try to cross, get caught, and try again — is roughly 40 percent. (By comparison, the recidivism rate was about 7 percent in fiscal year 2019.)

David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the CATO Institute, modeled the extent to which the number of crossings has been inflated by Title 42:

The number of families arriving on the border still appears to be tracking below 2019 levels, when more than 84,000 were apprehended in a single month.

4) Why are they coming?

On top of the factors pushing people out of their home countries, four years of Trump’s policies have created pent-up demand. Migrants correctly perceive that Biden is seeking to take a more humane approach than his predecessor and see an opportunity to seek refuge in the US where they did not before.

Many of these people are fleeing dangerous or unlivable conditions and felt they had no choice but to leave their home countries.

Smugglers have sought to capitalize on that desperation by spreading misinformation about the Biden administration’s plans to process asylum seekers. Immigrant advocates on the border have reported hearing rumors spreading that migrants staying in certain camps will be processed or that the border would open at midnight.

Title 42 has also created an incentive for families to choose to separate. Parents have sent their children to the border alone, knowing that they would be accepted by US authorities, while they await a chance to cross either in Mexico or their home countries. That has been the case since last fall, when a court forced the Trump administration to begin accepting unaccompanied children. The Biden administration opted to continue doing so, acknowledging its humanitarian obligations.

Reuters reported that smugglers have consequently been arranging trips from Central America just for children, encouraging families to pay thousands of dollars to send them alone by bus, car, boat, or plane.

5) What happens to migrants once they arrive at the border?

Single adults and families presenting themselves at a port of entry or apprehended while attempting to cross the border without authorization are currently being expelled under Title 42.

When border agents encounter children, the process is different. They are taken to jail-like CBP holding facilities, but they are subject to legal protections that prohibit the federal government from keeping them there for longer than 72 hours before they must be transferred to the HHS shelter system.

At times over the past seven years when resources at the border have become overwhelmed by arrivals of families and unaccompanied children, however, children have been kept in those facilities beyond the legal limit. That is why the Obama administration, the Trump administration, and now the Biden administration have been accused of keeping “kids in cages.”

In recent weeks, there have been reports of children in the facilities sleeping on gym mats with nothing but mylar blankets to keep them warm and not being permitted to go outside or take a shower for days at a time. The Biden administration has so far prevented the media from touring the facilities, which would offer better insight into the conditions.

BuzzFeed reported that, as of Wednesday, more than 3,000 children in the facilities had been there longer than the legal limit.

The conditions inside HHS facilities are better, but there have been reports of abuses in both permanent and temporary shelters for migrant children over the years, even predating Trump.

Asylum seekers listen to instructions at an outdoor US Border Patrol processing center under the Anzalduas International Bridge near Mission, Texas, on March 23.
John Moore/Getty Images

In one of the most egregious cases, migrant children were administered powerful psychotropic drugs at one shelter south of Houston, Texas, in 2018. A for-profit emergency influx center in Homestead, Florida, that once held up to 3,200 children also came under fire in 2019 following reports of sexual abuse, overcrowding, and negligent hiring practices.

Though the White House has been restricting access to both CBP and HHS facilities, NBC News toured one of the temporary HHS facilities that the Biden administration is currently using in Carrizo Spring, Texas, on Wednesday. More than 100 of the children in that facility tested positive for Covid-19 during the intake process and were isolating. It has a dining hall, dormitories, and an area to meet with legal representation and is decorated with colorful paintings.

However, it’s located in a remote location, about a two-hour drive from San Antonio, the nearest major city. That makes it difficult for government watchdogs to conduct independent oversight and ensure that the children are being treated humanely and in compliance with legal requirements and are not subject to prolonged periods of confinement.

The administration is making it easier for children to be released from those facilities to sponsors. It terminated a 2018 agreement with HHS under which sponsors were subject to more stringent vetting, which involved getting their fingerprints taken and additional paperwork. That information was shared with child welfare and immigration authorities, leaving the sponsors potentially vulnerable to deportation if they did not have legal status.

The administration is also facilitating cooperation between Border Patrol, HHS, and FEMA to ensure that children are transferred to shelters and released more quickly. And it is rushing to increase the number of available HHS shelters and expand bed space in existing facilities while complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on Covid-19.

6) Is what’s happening on the border a crisis?

Some argue it is — but not necessarily in the way the word is usually used.

Republicans have sought to frame the situation at the border as a national security crisis, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy claiming during a recent visit to the border that recent migrants are “not just people from Mexico or Honduras or El Salvador. They’re now finding people from Yemen, Iran, Turkey. People on the terrorist watch list they are catching, and they’re rushing in all at once.”

CBP told CNN, meanwhile, that “encounters of known and suspected terrorists at our borders are very uncommon.” No one has been killed or injured in attacks on US soil by terrorists who crossed the southern border without authorization and, since 1975, only nine people convicted of planning a terrorist attack entered the US illegally, including some on ships and airplanes.

Rather, the migrants arriving on the southern border are ones who have fled humanitarian crises in their home countries and who have encountered a system in the US that is ill-suited to offer them protection. Their arrival has strained existing resources on the border — but unlike the Trump administration, the Biden administration is taking steps to build up the necessary infrastructure to process them humanely.

“As more migrants arrive at our southern border, particularly vulnerable unaccompanied children, it’s clear we’re encountering a humanitarian crisis,” Elizabeth Neumann, a Trump-era counterterrorism official at the Department of Homeland Security, said during a press call earlier this week. “But I don’t believe that this is a national security crisis.”

The same crisis occurred in 2014, when more than 237,000 Central Americans, including over 60,000 unaccompanied children, showed up at the southern border. And it happened again in 2019, when CBP encountered 144,000 migrants over the course of just a single month and almost 1 million over the course of the year.

It’s clear that the current situation is not an aberration, but a recurring problem to which the federal government has not adapted.

7) How is Biden’s border policy different from Trump’s?

Trump sought to keep migrants out and prevent them from being released into the US at any cost — including separating more than 5,000 families who arrived on the border starting in the spring of 2018.

Biden has promised a more humane approach to the border. He has sought to reunify families that were separated, halted the construction of Trump’s border wall, and ended the Remain in Mexico program. His officials have also acknowledged that CBP facilities are no place for a child, and they are working urgently to ensure that children are kept in facilities that are suitable and to release them to sponsors more quickly.

But he has kept in place Title 42, the pandemic border restrictions. Like Trump, Biden is also pursuing a regional strategy to mitigate migration.

Trump sought to outsource the task of deporting asylum seekers to Mexico, brokering “Asylum Cooperative Agreements” with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador that required migrants to apply for protections in those countries before doing so in the US. (Those countries, however, were not capable of offering protection given that they have high levels of crime and instability and are not used to dealing with an influx of people seeking refuge.)

In a similar vein, a senior Biden administration official said last week that the US is looking to “share responsibility for protecting vulnerable migrants” by resettling migrants in the US and other countries in order to avoid “caravans” arriving at the border.

The administration has already restarted the Central American Minors program, which allows children in danger to apply to come to the US from their home countries instead of having to come to the US-Mexico border to do so. Trump had ended the program after taking office, leaving around 3,000 children stranded who had already been approved for travel.

It is looking to establish similar procedures by which people can apply for protection from their home countries. But it’s not clear to what extent such programs would deter people from making the journey north.

The Biden administration has also been coordinating with the Mexican government on migration issues, as well as vaccine distribution: The US recently announced that it is planning to share 2.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has not yet been authorized by American regulators, with Mexico. On the same day, Mexico announced that it is closing its border with Guatemala and Belize to nonessential travel. It has also announced that the US-Mexico border would remain closed through at least April 21. (The White House has maintained those conversations are unrelated.)

Biden said during a press conference Thursday that the US is also in ongoing negotiations with Mexico so that the country can absorb more migrants. “They should all be going back,” he said. “The only people we are not going to let sit there on the other side of the Rio Grande with no help are children.”

8) How much of this is the result of Biden’s policies?

Republicans have been eager to call this a “Biden border crisis.” Migration levels were already rising in the months before he took office, but because Trump was expelling nearly all migrants arriving on the border, they were largely invisible:

Trump’s policies, which promised to deter migrants from attempting to cross the southern border, were ultimately unsuccessful, instead creating pent-up demand that is only beginning to become evident now. And the Trump administration did nothing to improve conditions in the Northern Triangle that were driving people to flee, even revoking some $4 billion in aid.

“This new surge we are dealing with now started in the past administration, but it is our responsibility” to deal with it, Biden said Wednesday.

Republicans have criticized Biden for not being strong enough in telling migrants they’re not welcome. But his administration has been clear that the border is “not open” and that they should not come in an “irregular fashion.” As political pressure has ramped up, he has been even more strict, telling migrants in a recent interview with ABC “don’t come,” “don’t leave your town or city or community,” and that they would soon be able to “apply for asylum in place.”

The White House has been amplifying that messaging with more than 17,000 radio ads in Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras since January 21, playing in Spanish, Portuguese, and six Indigenous languages and reaching an estimated 15 million people. There have also been ad campaigns on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter:

But these are desperate people who have been waiting for an opportunity to migrate for a long time, so it’s not clear whether that kind of messaging actually resonates.

“No matter how many ads you run, no matter how terribly you treat people seeking protection, people will still come,” Omar C. Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s immigrants rights project, tweeted.

9) What does the situation at the border mean for immigration policy going forward?

The challenges that the administration is facing on the border are affecting conversations around immigration reform in Congress, as well as the Biden administration’s long-term plans for how to mitigate migration from Central America.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who has long been at the forefront of immigration issues in Congress, recently told reporters that he did not see a way to pass a Biden-backed comprehensive immigration reform bill known as the US Citizenship Act of 2021 and its promise of a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US.

“I don’t see a means of reaching it,” he said. “I think we are much more likely to deal with discrete elements” of immigration reform.

Makeshift housing camps for migrants seeking asylum hearings in Tijuana, Mexico. President Biden says he plans to visit the US-Mexico border “at some point” for a firsthand look at conditions.
Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Instead, he has been trying to drum up support for the DREAM Act, which would offer a path to citizenship to more than a million undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children provided that they meet certain requirements. He recently said he’s close to getting the 10 Republican votes needed for the bill to proceed in the Senate.

The House also recently passed two bills that would address aspects of immigration reform on a piecemeal basis. The Dream and Promise Act would offer a path to citizenship to these so-called “DREAMers” as well as people with temporary humanitarian protections, but given that it is largely a statement of Democratic priorities and does not make trade-offs on border security, it’s likely to be dead on arrival in the Senate.

The other bill, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, would legalize roughly 1.2 million farmworkers. It passed with the support of 30 Republicans, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who was one of the leads on the bill in the House, said there has been interest in the bill among Republican senators.

In the meantime, the Biden administration has laid out a long-term plan to tackle migration from Central America — an effort that Vice President Kamala Harris will oversee.

In addition to cooperating with neighboring countries on migration mitigation efforts, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that the administration is working on a new regulation that would speed up asylum adjudications such that the process would take months, rather than years, while “ensuring procedural safeguards and enhancing access to counsel.” It’s not clear what mechanisms the administration will use to do so, but it’s the kind of reform that immigrant advocates have been calling for — so long as it does not infringe on asylum seekers’ due process rights.

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