clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

7 questions about migration and the US-Mexico border, answered

Record numbers of people crossed the US border last year. Here’s a guide to understanding what’s happening.

Migrants, viewed from above, walk toward the border wall
Migrants walk towards the US-Mexico border wall for processing by US Border Patrol agents in February 2024.
John Moore/Getty Images

The biggest spectacle in Washington this week was the unraveling of an immigration deal in Congress, a border security bill that Republicans pushed for, only to turn against it because former President Donald Trump didn’t want any legislation that might help President Biden stay in the White House this fall.

But more complicated and consequential is what’s been happening on immigration far from Washington. And although the political stakes of immigration in Congress and at the White House are high in an election year, they are far higher for the growing number of migrants who have been making their way to the US in recent years.

Here are the answers to seven big questions about migrants, immigration, and the situation on the US border and beyond.

1) What’s happening at the US-Mexico border?

Many more people than usual are trying to cross into the United States. The number of times US immigration agents intercepted migrants attempting to cross the border exceeded 300,000 in December, the highest number in over two decades and up from about 250,000 in December 2022. 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.

Many of those intercepted at the border are turned away immediately under current policies, but those who are allowed to pursue their claims for asylum or humanitarian relief can either be detained or released into the US while undergoing deportation proceedings that can stretch out for years. Almost 200,000 migrants were released and enrolled in case management programs in fiscal year 2023.

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.

While border crossings are an important part of the story, a wave of migrants is also challenging leaders in cities — especially blue cities — much farther away. Texas alone has sent more than 100,000 migrants to Washington, DC, New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, and Los Angeles since 2022, and still more migrants are making their way to those cities on their own.

—Nicole Narea

2) Is unauthorized immigration a bigger problem now than in the past?

It depends on whom you’re asking. Controversies over unauthorized immigration have roiled American politics for decades, with conservatives regularly complaining that too many people were coming in illegally. Some complaints are false or exaggerated — that unauthorized immigrants lower Americans’ wages or take their jobs (rarely true), or that they’re more likely to commit crimes (they’re less likely). Some objections are based on pure bigotry or xenophobia. And some are more practical — that it’s simply disruptive, difficult, and expensive to deal with a huge inflow of migrants to your area.

Progressives have in recent years typically argued that such complaints are exaggerated or simply didn’t give them much priority. They argue that these migrants typically come with nothing and risk everything for a shot at a better life, that they make America better, and that there’s a moral imperative to help them. During the Trump presidency especially, the Democratic Party embraced openness to immigration to differentiate themselves from the president’s bigotry and cruelty. “In this house, we believe … no human is illegal,” the yard signs read. “We’re a nation that says, ‘If you want to flee, and you’re fleeing oppression, you should come,” Biden said while running for president in 2019.

But since Biden took office, a few things have changed. The numbers went way up — a whole lot of people are coming to the border and trying to gain entry to the United States, more than have been coming for many years, leading to many chaotic-looking scenes at the border. Some leading Democrats in blue states and cities began saying this surge in arrivals was causing serious strain on their government and budgets. And, perhaps most importantly, the Biden administration began to fear that the issue was hurting them politically.

—Andrew Prokop

3) Is the border situation really a crisis?

For most of the decade before Biden took office, US Customs and Border Protection had 400,000 or 500,000 “encounters” with migrants at the southern border each year. Under Biden, the average number has been about 2 million a year, with 2023 being the highest yet.

Republicans have complained about a “crisis” at the border for years, even when the number of arriving migrants was much lower. But the complaints got more bipartisan in 2022 and 2023, when some Democratic politicians in blue states and cities seeing an influx of migrants began complaining that they were overwhelmed. Their shelter systems, schools, and budgets were becoming seriously strained with the challenge of helping so many needy people, they said. New York City Mayor Eric Adams led the backlash, claiming last year that the migrant issue “will destroy New York City.” Mainstream media outlets like the New York Times also now often refer to the situation as a “crisis.”

Other Democrats and progressives have pushed back on that framing, saying that the US is the richest country in the world, so surely it can muster the financial resources and compassion to help these people who have clearly been driven to desperation in search of a better life. But the “crisis” argument has won out in the White House, and helped drive President Biden’s effort to make major border policy concessions to the GOP in hopes of striking a bipartisan border policy deal.

The “crisis” argument also benefits Trump, who urged Republicans not to take such a deal, reportedly because he hoped to blame Biden for continuing border chaos during the campaign.


4) Why are so many migrants coming to the US now?

The new migrants are coming from a variety of places — most notably Venezuela, but also elsewhere in Central and South America and even China. Many make a long and arduous land journey, passing through several countries after paying an increasingly sophisticated people-smuggling operation linked to cartels.

There are two competing narratives on why this massive surge has happened. Progressives often prefer to emphasize what are known as the “push” factors — the conditions that drive migrants to leave their home countries, like the catastrophic collapse of Venezuela’s economy and degradation of conditions in Nicaragua and Haiti. Crises like these, they argue, have simply gotten worse in recent years, both in the region and around the world, spurring more people to take the risk of emigrating to the US in search of a better life. So progressives tend to argue that harsh border crackdowns and efforts at deterrence, in addition to being cruel and immoral, won’t work, since the true root cause lies in migrants’ home countries.

In contrast, conservatives emphasize the “pull” factors, arguing that there are specific features of US and Biden administration policy and messaging that are driving the surge. People are mainly coming, they say, because they’ve heard that, with the way our system is set up, they have a pretty good shot at getting in. They know, for instance, that there’s a good chance that if they make an asylum request, they’ll be released into the US while their claims are being adjudicated — a process that can take years. They argue that with tougher policies of more detention, less leniency, and less generosity, fewer migrants will want to come.


5) What is asylum?

Under US and international law, migrants have the right to pursue asylum in the United States if they have “credible fear” of persecution in their home countries on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinions, or membership in a “particular social group,” such as a tribe or ethnic group. People who are granted asylum in the US can get social services immediately and a green card quickly. But unlike refugees, who apply for resettlement abroad, asylum seekers must be physically in the US to apply.

The Biden administration has introduced new restrictions on asylum seekers, including a rule that allows immigration enforcement officials to turn away any migrants who do not have valid travel and identification documents and traveled through another country without applying for asylum. They must either show up at a port of entry at an appointed time or be able to demonstrate that they were unable to schedule an appointment.

There are some exemptions, including for unaccompanied children. If migrants intercepted at the border fail to abide by the requirements of the rule and to demonstrate during an initial interview with an asylum officer that they face “credible fear” of persecution in their home countries, they will be swiftly deported and barred from reentering the US for five years. Otherwise, they then have to defend their claim in immigration court, where an immigration judge will examine the evidence and decide whether to grant them asylum or any other form of deportation relief.

The immigration courts 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. Many migrants are forced to navigate the process themselves: Unlike in the criminal court system, there is no guarantee of legal representation.


6) Why are New York and other cities struggling so much to meet migrants’ needs?

The recent surge in the number of migrants coming from the southern border into big cities has overwhelmed already-strained services — including shelter, legal aid, and health care — leading state and local leaders to put pressure on the federal government to intervene. New York, for example, has attracted more than 150,000 migrants since 2022; the city has a right-to-shelter law that requires it to provide a bed for anybody seeking shelter, regardless of citizenship status, resulting in makeshift shelters at churches, gyms, and closed-down schools and offices to help house the growing migrant population.

What has made this particular migration wave more financially costly for cities than past eras of mass migration is a sharp increase in the number of families with children and the fact that many of the people coming to the United States don’t have family or friends who already live here and can help them settle in.

The migrants aren’t necessarily posing new problems for cities but instead further exposing longstanding ones, including the high cost of housing. And because Congress has significantly limited noncitizens’ access to federal social programs such as SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid over the years, local and state governments are having trouble cobbling together enough money to cover the high financial costs of supporting migrants, many of whom have not been granted work authorization by the federal government. As a result, many migrant families have fallen through the cracks and have been struggling with homelessness.

—Abdallah Fayyad

7) What could be done to help solve the border crisis?

Right now, with the patience of the American public running thin, both Republicans and Democrats seem more interested in pursuing policies that will help them look tough on the border in an election year, rather than a comprehensive approach to fixing the problem.

That’s because it’s a difficult problem to solve — but not an impossible one. Any solution has to balance the clear need to resolve migrants’ cases more quickly with international obligations not to return asylum seekers to danger. Immigration policy experts have researched these potential solutions for years, but few of them have actually been seriously considered by Congress.

The American Immigration Council, a nonprofit, has issued a comprehensive list of recommendations, largely to invest more resources in various stages of the immigration process, including but not limited to:

  • Before migrants reach the US border, supporting asylum processing and migrants’ lives in South and Central America, and working with the Mexican government to expand shelter capacity and security
  • Expanding physical infrastructure and staffing up at ports of entry
  • Hiring more asylum officers
  • Investing in alternatives to detention
  • Providing legal representation to every migrant in immigration court who cannot afford to hire one themselves

They call for better cooperation between various government agencies and NGOs through the creation of a Center for Migrant Coordination and regional processing centers, as well as increasing pathways for people to stay in the country or avoid deportation.

They also want to modernize the legal definition of asylum in a way that would make more people eligible and reflect current needs — for example, something more akin to the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, which defines asylum as intended to protect people threatened by “generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflict, massive human rights violations, or other circumstances that have gravely disturbed public order.” This would likely increase the number of people eligible for asylum.

It’s unrealistic, however, to expect that any one solution will lead to overnight success in solving the border crisis.


Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.