For years U.S. border policy has focused on one overarching strategy, with many different tactics: Deterrence. The idea behind deterrence is that if the consequences of unauthorized migration can be made punitive enough, people will stop trying. It doesn’t work. It has never worked. For example, in the late 1990’s, as part of the Clinton administration's "prevention through deterrence" approach, border walls were built through urban areas along the U.S./Mexico border in order to drive people trying to cross the border into the desert. The policies did not stop migration, but thousands of people have died in those deserts as a result:
Experts can only guess at the true number of lives lost over the last two decades. At a minimum, more than 7,000 people have perished, though the true total is guaranteed to be higher. During the 1990s, the Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner dealt with an average of 12 migrant deaths annually. Over an 18-year period beginning in 2000, once prevention through deterrence was humming along, that number rose to 155 per year. According to the medical examiner’s office, 2,943 sets of human remains have been found in southern Arizona from 2000 to the present.
Writing in January of 2017, just before Trump took office, the Women’s Refugee Council, KIND and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services issued the report, Betraying Family Values in which they documented that,
As a matter of procedure and policy, border agents routinely separate family members, including intentionally, as a punishment – or “consequences- through what DHS calls its Consequence Delivery System (CDS). The consequences are meant to deter future migration, often regardless of international protection or other humanitarian concerns.
‘CDS’ was implemented in 2005, and employed by both the Bush and Obama administrations. For example,
As families fleeing violence in Central America began making headlines in 2014, the Obama Administration implemented an aggressive deterrence policy designed to stop families from seeking protection in the United States. The Administration prioritized all recent border crossers as enforcement priorities and vastly increased the use of expedited removal and detention of mothers arriving with children.
None of this worked - but it did establish precedents for Trump to use and abuse. Yet, even as Trump has elevated the consequences severely, people have kept coming. Indeed, the highest spike in Border apprehensions in over a decade came in the year AFTER the child separation fiasco ushered in by Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, and after the administration’s decision to detain nearly all asylum seekers. Last fiscal year (2019) the number of border patrol apprehensions reached 859,501, more than double the year before (404,142), and almost triple Trump’s first year in office (310,531). The crisis at the border throughout the spring and summer of 2019 was very real of course, but it was driven by Trump’s failed policy agenda, not asylum seekers.
The utter failure of Trump’s deterrence policies, however, have only led the administration to try even more punitive measures. Asylum seekers are no longer even admitted into the United States until after hearings before an immigration judge. 60,000+ people have been redirected to Mexico to await these hearings since January of 2019. When the hearings finally started last summer they were a fiasco. Only 1% of those who have received a hearing were granted asylum. When the COVID pandemic was declared, there were still 25,000 or more people along the U.S./Mexico border living in camps, or scraping by on the streets of Mexican border towns, waiting. Since March, the hearings have been suspended, and the border itself closed under an order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This order, dubious in origin, has led to the summary expulsion of close to 200,000 people. As a result of forcing people into crowded conditions to wait out the pandemic, the effect of the order has been to create a public health crisis on the border - not prevent one.
And yet, people are still coming. Despite all of the above, there were more Border Patrol apprehensions in September of 2020 than September of last year, and the number is only increasing. Why?
People end up at our borders from all over the world. Many are fleeing violent conflicts and the collapse of livelihoods from a variety of environmental and economic factors. Those from Central America, which make up the largest portion of asylum claims, are fleeing well documented violence at the hands of gangs, the state, or partners. Doctors Without Border issued a study just before the pandemic, based on 480 interviews and 26,000 medical records, showing that 45.7% of the people from Central America migrating through Mexico were fleeing violence - 75% of families. In one of the few empirical studies disagregating various causal factors behind migration, the Center for Global Development (2017) showed that there was a direct relationship between the murder rate in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and youth migration to the United States, irrespective of U.S. border policy, which made no significant difference in the decision to migrate. The study shows that from 2011 to 2016, “the violence-migration relationship was driven by events in the region and was unaffected by changes in U.S. immigration policy during the period.”
The impacts of climate change, in the form of drought, coffee rust, and food insecurity is probably the single biggest push factor behind migration in recent years, though it can be hard to separate climate impacts from the violence that grows out of the resulting scarcity. Even Customs and Border Patrol documented crop loss as a primary reason for migration - a finding ignored by the Trump administration, which actually cut assistance to mitigate crop loss in the region among other cuts in aid; cuts made as a punishment for countries' in Central America not doing enough (in Trump's mind) to stop migration!(?)
The impact of COVID-19.
The last six months have only deepened the crises in Central America. Economic growth has collapsed, driving even more people into poverty. Prior to COVID-19, Latin American economies were projected to grow about 1.9% this year. In September of 2020 the International Monetary Fund revised its estimate, anticipating a regional contraction of 9.4% - a negative swing of 11.3%. Mexico is among the hardest hit economies, expected to contract by over 10% this year.
Gang violence has seen a slight reduction in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, largely due to the curfews in force in all three countries. Nevertheless, the rate of killing is on the upswing as the curfews end. Honduras and Guatemala each saw just under 2,000 murders this year by the end of August. Mexico is still home to half of all the active gangs in Latin America and half of the related deaths. Gender based violence has increased in Central America during the pandemic, as it has elsewhere. In Honduras 45 women had been killed in domestic disputes by the end of May. Reports of gender based violence were up 70% in El Salvador and 65% in Mexico. State violence also increased across the region as governments sought to enforce draconian lockdowns measures with force. Honduras used the pretense of enforcing its lockdown to arrest dozens of opposition political activists.
Finally, as countries from the U.S. to Panama closed their borders in the spring, migrants already on the journey from Haiti, Cameroon, Pakistan, India, Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere, were detained throughout Central America. These people are attempting to continue their journeys now - at least those able to. Many are now arriving at the U.S./Mexico border. During the first two weeks of October, Border Patrol arrested 1,800 people from 26 different countries in the Del Rio sector in Texas. One fourth (450) were from Haiti. Almost all were flown out over the space of a week, with no chance to apply for asylum.
The lesson here is that even with the border closed, and asylum off the table, people are still coming. And the numbers will only increase in the coming months. Deterrence has not worked. It will not work as long as economies weaken, climate change destroys livelihoods and violence leaves people with no other choice but to migrate. Indeed, for the foreseeable future, forced, survival migration will remain the norm with peaks and valleys in the movement of people, but it won’t end. Not with a wall, moat, machine gun turrets, lasers and drones. It is beyond time to acknowledge the global crises underlying displacement and stop acting like the resulting migration is something being done to us.
So, another four years of Trumpian antics won’t work. And a return to the Obama standard of massive deportations, high tech border toys and “consequence delivery systems” won’t either. What might? Well, it has already been shown that dollar for dollar, spending money on violence prevention programs targeting youth in Central America is far more effective at reducing migration than expanding the Border Patrol or changing asylum rules. Helping people mitigate the immediate impacts of climate change will do more to reduce refugee flows than 100 or 500 more miles of border wall. More importantly what these measures signify is an important truth: Treating all people with dignity is actually a better way to get results. We are all in this together, after all. Better we start acting like it.