The Kids Are Still In Cages: U.S. Experiencing Worst Illegal Immigration Surge In Two Decades

By Luna Salinas
·  10 min read
The Kids Are Still In Cages US Experiencing Worst Illegal Immigration Surge In Two Decades

The southern border crisis is experiencing its worst surge in two decades, and we need to talk about it.

During the last administration, we saw countless headlines decrying the “children in cages,” parents being deported in front of their children, and humanitarians horrified at the separation of children from their parents in migrant facilities. But the humanitarian crisis at the southern border began long before Donald Trump took office, and now has reached incredible proportions under the Biden administration.

The Worst Surge in 20 Years

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas admitted on Tuesday that "we are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.”

So far, border agents have apprehended 100,441 illegal migrants in February alone. This surge comes after the Biden administration reversed several of the Trump administration’s more controversial border security measures, including the Remain in Mexico policy

Border agents have apprehended 100,441 illegal migrants in February alone.

Single adults are being expelled, but children traveling alone, some as young as 6 years old, are not being turned away. The number of children apprehended has skyrocketed 60% from January, filling some facilities like the Donna Center in Texas to more than 700% its intended capacity. Lawyers interviewed dozens of children in the facility, discovering that they’re unable to shower for days, they’re not allowed to contact their parents, and they’re kept in the facility for 5 to 7 days. 

Now, the government is being forced to convert a Dallas convention center into another emergency holding facility for more than 3,000 teens intercepted at the border.

The Biden Administration Won’t Admit It’s a Crisis

So far, the Biden administration fails to call this a crisis at all, even when “the number of detained children has surged, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has resorted to asking for volunteers to help hold the line.” 

When asked at what point the current administration will call what’s happening at the border a crisis, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “I don’t think we need to sit here and put new labels on what we have already conveyed is challenging, what we have conveyed is a top priority for the president, what our policy teams are working on every single day…We think that it’s most important to explain the substantive policy of what’s happening, what the root causes are of why these kids are coming, and what we’re doing to try to solve what is a very challenging circumstance at the border.”

Why are they waiting? The Obama administration declared a border crisis when there were only 1,000 border apprehensions per day — and as of February, Border Patrol is experiencing six times that number. As it stands, Biden has been dubbed “the migrant president” for his leniency on illegal immigration, releasing illegal immigrants into the U.S., in some cases without testing them for COVID-19. A video of dozens of illegal migrants crossing the Rio Grande went viral last week. That was after photos surfaced of migrants wearing bright white shirts reading “Biden Please Let Us In!”

The issue is that many immigrants attempt to cross the border not as an entire family unit. Some parents choose to send their children on their own with a coyote and pay thousands of dollars to get them over the border. Coyotes may smuggle children into the country, unaccompanied by their parents, either posing as the child’s parent or in a group of many other migrants. This is why many children may appear at the border unaccompanied or “separated from a parent” (who isn’t actually their parent). This allows for human trafficking or violence to take place, especially when some parents don’t intend to or are unable to reunite with their children at the border.

The Border Crisis Is More than 100 Years Old

The U.S.-Mexico border was established farther back than many may think — in the 1830s and ‘40s during the Texas revolution. In short, Mexico (thanks to conquering the Spaniards) used to own much of the southwestern United States, including all or most of the modern-day states of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. In the early 1800s, Mexico wanted to settle the vast territory of Texas and allowed settlers from the United States and other countries to claim land. As time passed, there was a larger immigrant presence in the region than a Mexican one. Small insurrections turned into the revolution, and ultimately Texas became its own independent nation with a Texas-Mexico border to secure, which they did through militia groups and violence.

When Texas became an American state at the very end of 1845, the task of securing the border fell upon the U.S., and it was still largely the job of officials and vigilante groups to regulate the movement across the border. It wasn’t always the aim of these groups to keep people out. In the early years of the border, border security groups aimed to keep people in, primarily escaped slaves.

The official U.S. Border Patrol was established in 1924 to police bootleggers and immigrants.  

There was no concerted effort to keep out Mexican immigrants, until the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The goal, at first, was to keep revolutionary conflicts from coming across the border. However, more and more Mexican immigrants began to cross the border in order to escape the revolution. The official U.S. Border Patrol was established in 1924, as a federally-armed force. Aside from policing the border, they policed “prohibition-era bootleggers” even more so than Mexican immigration. Regardless, its main objective was to impede Mexican immigration and prohibit unauthorized immigration from Asian countries.

Why Are So Many People Crossing the Border Today?

There are two major reasons for the incredible number of illegal crossings at the southern border each year. First is the political instability and violence that racks Mexico and much of Central America. You might be surprised to learn that El Salvador, home to the vicious MS-13 gang, has the highest murder rate in the world. Mexico, too, suffers from brutal cartel violence and femicide

Besides those fleeing violence and political instability, the U.S. economy is a huge draw for those living in some of the most impoverished places in the world. For example, the average Mexican salary (give or take) is 399,000 pesos per year, which is about $19,381.42 USD, at the time of writing. The minimum wage (which was increased last year) is about 123.22 pesos per day, which currently is about $5.99 USD.

The Mexican minimum wage is about $5.99 per day, compared to the U.S. federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. 

To put it in perspective, if the federal minimum wage here is $7.25 per hour, that’s already so much better than what an unskilled laborer would be making in Mexico. Many immigrants seek out work here to earn more money to send back to their families and improve their economic situations. Should an illegal immigrant obtain a minimum-wage 9-to-5 job, they’d earn in one day just under 10 times what they’d earn at a minimum wage job in Mexico.

The Approach of Past Administrations

A lot of mainstream news covered the Trump administration’s handling of, and rhetoric surrounding, the U.S.-Mexico border and illegal immigration. However, we don’t often see reflections on how previous administrations handled the crisis.

University of San Francisco law professor Bill Ong Hing, who has spent decades working on immigration, describes one critical moment during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, which began in 1977: “Jimmy Carter gave a speech near the end of his administration welcoming refugees to the United States, and Fidel Castro actually took him at heart and released many people from Cuban prisons and from mental institutions and put them on flotillas."

The Carter administration accepted many Cuban refugees, even those with a criminal record. At the same time, Haitians were fleeing the Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier regime.

The Carter administration started the trend of the U.S. helping those in Latin countries to escape their home country’s oppressive regimes. 

There was starting to be a trend, wherein the U.S. would help those in Latin countries to escape their home country’s oppressive regimes. It continued with the Reagan administration, described by Hing as “a Jekyll and Hyde administration.” 

Hing writes, “At the same time that they were denying asylum to Guatemalans and Salvadorans, Ronald Reagan went ahead and signed IRCA — the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. It did grant amnesty to about three million undocumented immigrants, and so President Reagan recognized that undocumented immigrants actually benefited the United States.” Since at this time Mexican immigrants crossed the border for seasonal work, it was easy for Central Americans to cross in the same manner.

Still, the militarization of the border didn’t occur until the Clinton administration, with Operation Gatekeeper. It involved closing the border in sections where it was easiest to cross, as well as implementing strategies of “prevention through deterrence” — part of a comprehensive national southwest border strategic plan which was meant to bring migrant apprehensions under “control.” It meant militarizing the border, increasing border patrol agents, opening checkpoints, increasing detention bed space, and building walls and adding infrastructure where there previously hadn’t been. Hing says, “Bill Clinton actually [laid] the groundwork for what we have today.”

During the Bush administration, the Department of Homeland Security was created in light of 9/11, and in 2003, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was created. More bills were created in an attempt to keep migrants out, such as the Fence Act in 2006 (supported by then-senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama). The Fence Act would have built a fence along the border, but it wasn’t fully funded.

The 2006 Fence Act would have built a fence along the border, but it wasn’t fully funded.

The Obama administration oversaw record-setting deportations, meanwhile, Hing says the Trump administration took advantage of the detention facilities. This is the root of a lot of modern controversy around the U.S.-Mexico border crisis. 

Hing described his visit to a detention facility in June of 2019: “My experience in mid-June is something I will never be able to erase from my mind. I personally interviewed a 4-year-old with his 12-year-old brother, a 5-year-old who was left alone after being separated from his father. The children were very dirty. They had not been able to bathe. Their hair was dirty.”

While there wasn’t a solution to the poor living conditions in the detention facilities during the Trump administration, the Biden administration promised to “Take urgent action to undo Trump’s damage and reclaim America’s values, modernize America’s immigration system, and welcome immigrants in our communities.” How have those plans manifested so far?

Closing Thoughts

There are many reasons to be concerned about the crisis at the border. First and foremost are the thousands of children trapped in immigration facilities without parents or legal guardians. Many of these children may be victims of human trafficking, and it’s often hard to determine if children rightfully belong to the adult accompanying them at the border. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement called for immediate actions on the surge of migrants. Chief of Staff Timothy Perry wrote, "We need to prepare for border surges now…We need to begin making changes immediately. We should privilege action over cost considerations; do what is needed, and the department will work on funding afterward."

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