What’s Really Happening at the Border?

Malcolm Jacob, Scarlet Staff

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News on the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border is not hard to come by. Turn on the TV any day and you run the chance of seeing reporters visiting facilities in Texas or Arizona. There are lawmakers debating the adequate amount of aid and the separation of families, as well as interviews with people who have been living in  refugee camps or are still on the trail. (Often these people ask that their identities remain a secret.) With such a high volume of information, it can be difficult to discern what is actually happening.

The truth is, there is no single answer to what is taking place. The situation varies between locations, as well as from one side of the Rio Grande to the other. One example of this is the surprising diversity of countries that the asylum seekers come from. Many are fleeing South and Central American countries such as Guatemala, but others have traveled from Cuba, Haiti, and as far away as Cameroon and other African nations.

Another point: in 2017, it was reported that more non-Mexican immigrants (180,077) were apprehended at the border than people actually from Mexico (130,454). This is a stark contrast from the number from Mexico in 2000 (1.6 million). These statistics are a challenge to the notion that our southern neighbor is the primary source of unauthorized immigrants.

The journey north can often be an arduous one, but asylum seekers’ challenges are not necessarily over when they arrive at the southern border of the U.S. These people are placed in the hands of agents on both the American and Mexican side. One of the recurring obstacles at this stage is the language barrier: American court documents are printed in English, which means many of the applicants are unable to understand them without the help of a lawyer or an interpreter.

According to the Texas Tribune, the current “metering” policy restricts the number of people that can request asylum at ports of entry each day. This can lead to a wait that lasts weeks or even months. From here, there are several things that can happen to somebody that arrives at the border.

After leaving the processing facility, a person or family could fall under the Migrant Protection Protocols, more commonly known as “Remain in Mexico.” In this case they wait on the southern side of the border until their court date.

Many of these locations have become packed with tents that house the asylum seekers. According to the Associated Press, since its beginning, the Remain in Mexico policy has sent more than 55,000 people to wait in these border camps. Conditions here are challenging for the occupants, with limited clean water and poor sanitary conditions. Groups such as Doctors Without Borders, working alongside the Mexican government, provide medical aid and other services in overwhelmed cities such as Matamoros.

The other possibilities include being sent from Border Patrol-run facilities to ICE detention centers, being passed on to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (especially for unaccompanied minors), and being released into the U.S. to await trial.

The question of what’s happening at the border is not easily answered. The same can be said about the status of those who successfully enter the U.S. Some studies have cited a rise in “boundary enforcement” and a push to remove certain groups of people from the United States. At the same time, sanctuary cities have made it difficult for ICE to detain immigrants in certain locations. The experience can be different from person to person.

What is certain is that there are more people looking for refuge than the agents on both sides of the border can care for. Many services are accepting donations and welcoming volunteers, and there are calls for more efficient processes and better treatment of families. If the approach doesn’t adapt to these conditions, and if people continue to arrive, the situation is unlikely to improve on its own.

Special thanks to the Clark students who traveled to the border over the summer for providing this data.