Is there a crisis at the U.S.–Mexico border? It depends on your definition of crisis.
The monthly number of individuals being apprehended there for unauthorized crossings is higher than it was two years ago, pre-coronavirus, and given seasonal trends, this summer’s totals might end up being higher than those observed at any point during President Donald Trump’s term. But there are still fewer crossings being documented during this influx than there were as recently as the peak summer months of 2019, and many fewer than were routinely recorded during the first decade of the 21st century. President Joe Biden has terminated a number of Trump administration policies that were designed to make the process of applying for legal asylum in the U.S. more difficult but hasn’t lifted the “Title 42” emergency declaration under which many of the individuals who are apprehended are expelled from the country on COVID-19 grounds before they can begin that process. You could also argue that a state of affairs in which any number of people are trying to make their way through dangerous terrain into a system that will not admit all of them, resulting in frequent deaths and the use of permanent, prisonlike holding facilities, is a crisis by definition. But that’s been the status quo in the Southwest for a long time.
One thing that’s clear, however, is that the Republican Party would like American voters to think that there is a uniquely high volume of border crossing going on as the result of Biden’s soft-touch approach. The issue is basically the only one the party’s leaders want to talk about; House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy just flew to Texas and called the situation a “human tragedy.” Some mainstream outlets have used similar terminology, with the New York Times describing a “new border crisis” on Feb. 6, and the Associated Press following suit on Feb. 10. On Sunday, ABC even set its “Powerhouse Roundtable” team up in a border-adjacent El Paso, Texas, field covered in crisis dirt:
No one has been more committed to the “border crisis” framing than Fox News, though; according to the Nexis database, Fox has used the term at least 78 times since inauguration. In fact, the first mention by any major national publication or network of an urgent, Biden-specific crisis appears to have taken place Jan. 21, one whole day after the new president had taken the oath of office, on Fox personality Laura Ingraham’s prime-time show. One of the experts Ingraham put forth to confirm the crisis’s existence was Stephen Miller, the senior Trump adviser with well-documented intellectual roots in the community of nationalists who advocate strict immigration laws because they believe that the U.S. should be a white-controlled country; Miller was responsible for creating and/or pushing through Trump’s most notorious border policies, including the “zero tolerance” initiative to separate parents from their young children. Ingraham’s other guest was Mark Morgan, who served as the acting director of both Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection under Trump. The message of their segment was that Biden, by moving to halt deportations during a review of immigration policy, was encouraging and attracting violent criminals:
INGRAHAM: And for all the left’s talk of former President Trump’s alleged incitement, well, our next guest says President Biden has not just incited the next border crisis but opened the door to violence.
Joining me now is Stephen Miller, former senior adviser to President Trump, and Mark Morgan, former acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Stephen, welcome to the other side. It’s like your first real big interview after leaving the administration. You know this issue better than anyone. What will this mean for the country? Why should the average American be watching this tonight care about this issue of deportations and border enforcement?
MILLER: Thank you for having me on, Laura. If you read the text of this order, it is breathtaking and mind boggling in its scope. It halts all deportations, all deportations for a hundred days, including the most hardened criminals living in the United States.
That means child molesters, sex offenders, drug dealers, gang members, MS-13, all shielded from removal. This is the priority of our new president with a raging pandemic.
A few moments later, Morgan, who was the head of CBP when it sent unmarked vans to detain protesters in Portland, Oregon, and who also made headlines for claiming that antifa agitators were traveling from city to city by airplane, expanded on the idea:
MORGAN: Laura, like you’ve already said. It’s absurd. This is a travesty. And look, in my opinion, Laura, this president is actually inciting the next wave, the next illegal immigration crisis. It’s already started.
Miller and Morgan not only identified the existence of a new crisis but named its cause: Biden’s initial moves to roll back their (unpopular) policies.
According to CBP’s own data, though, year-over-year apprehensions began rising in August 2020, when Trump was still president, and had increased significantly before votes were counted in November. (In October 2020, there were 71,946 reported apprehensions; in October 2018, there were 60,781.) An op-ed published Monday by analysts at the Migration Policy Institute cites data from 2020 and January 2021 that indicates a high portion of attempted crossings were being made by individual adults who’d already tried to cross before and been expelled—individuals who had, therefore, already decided to make a journey north well before Biden won the election. (The op-ed’s writers also note that Central America was hit hard in November by two hurricanes, which may have triggered migration that was unrelated to domestic U.S. politics.) And a Washington Post op-ed published Tuesday by authors from the U.S. Immigration Policy Center observes that if you add 2019’s numbers to the pandemic-related numerical drop in documented crossings that took place in 2020, you get, roughly, 2021’s numbers; in other words, the number of crossings taking place now could constitute a normal level of volume being combined with “pent-up” volume related to COVID-19.
Border apprehension numbers under Trump were, meanwhile, higher in 2019 than they ever were under Obama. (You might wonder whether that’s because Trump hired a flood of CBP agents, but he actually employed fewer than the previous administration.) In sum, while it is certainly possible that Biden’s changes to asylum processing have motivated some attempts to cross the border, such efforts were already being made at historically high and rising levels under Trump despite his notorious regime of policies that could be described as hostile and even sadistic.
Nonetheless, two months after Miller and Morgan’s Fox segment, here’s where we are:
Part of the reason this story is getting so much coverage is probably that pundits and reporters know that immigration is a trickier issue for the Democratic coalition than the economics and COVID-relief initiatives the administration has been working on previously. Certain tensions were going to come up at some point anyway, and the numerical increase in border crossing is real. The Trump administration in exile, though, likely could not be more pleased that a trend that began on its watch has been framed as a “Biden on the defensive” story rather than a “Biden follows international humanitarian standards” story, or even a “Biden takes his turn addressing a perennial American problem” story.
As it happens, Politico’s Playbook newsletter wrote critically on Wednesday about the Biden administration’s resistance to letting members of the press see migrant holding facilities, quoting an expert source who made the staggeringly false and ahistorical claim that the Trump administration was forthcoming and transparent with the media about its policies and activities at the border. That expert source was Stephen Miller. What are we accomplishing with this news cycle, exactly?