Transcript: Special Episode: What’s Happening at the Southern Border


Ali Noorani [00:00:15] This week an on-the-ground, look at the story that’s dominating the headlines, the US Mexico border.


Joanna Williams [00:00:21] One of the first thing that people need to know is that no one really wants to be here. That’s something that’s a very common refrain I heard yesterday speaking from a woman from southern Mexico. And she said, if I could go back to my home, if I could go back to be close to the graves of my parents and to put flowers on their graves, I would do it in a heartbeat. And many other people who talk about how much they love their hometowns, the beautiful places that they live. This is not people’s first, second or third choice. It’s a last resort. And I think that that’s what we need to understand. I think about the border.


Joanna Williams [00:00:58] From the National Immigration Forum. I’m Ali Noorani, and this is Only in America.


Underwriting [00:01:10] Support for the National Immigration Forum comes from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement and strengthening international peace and security and from Humanity United. When humanity is united, we can bring a powerful force for human dignity.


Ali Noorani [00:01:30] A record number of people have been attempting to cross the US-Mexico border this year, many of them children. There are reports of a backlog of thousands of people willing to take a chance. And those that are turned back usually wait a bit of time in Mexico just to try again. So, how does the number of people at the border this year compared to previous years? We have an explainer on these numbers that you can check out on our website for a more in-depth look, but  the top line is that there are approximately 171,000 total apprehensions at the US Mexico border. That’s a number we have not seen since 2006. So, what are these individuals and families facing and are there approaches to be taken immediately to start fixing these issues at the border? Before we hear about some of these families, let’s dig into the numbers a little more deeply and some of the history with Danilo Zak, the Forum’s policy and advocacy associate. So Danillo, let’s go back to 2019, just to give us a little bit of context to what we’re seeing today. So what was happening at the US Mexico border in 2019? What were the security functions in place? What were the numbers that we were seeing?


Danilo Zak [00:02:35] Sure. So, you know, taking it back to 2019, that was a period of a recent increase in the number of migrants arriving, especially between ports of entry. So, you know, we saw from an average of twenty thirty thousand forty thousand people coming in years before that shot up all the way to about 140,000 total at its peak in the summer of 2019. And that was largely driven by an increase in asylum seekers, mostly children and families from Central America. So in 2019, and before that as well, sort of over this whole decade, we’ve seen sort of an increase in asylum seekers coming, fleeing some of the contexts that they’re in in Central America. And this is slightly at odds with the way the border is set up. So we have a lot of security mechanisms in place, like I said, mostly to prevent the crossing of single adults who are looking for economic work. And we’ve got tons of money invested in that. The Trump administration build hundreds of miles of border wall. In fact, the Obama and Bush administrations also both border barriers. We’re using all kinds of technology to prevent folks from trying to cross between ports of entry. We stationed 20 thousand agents down there. In 2000, that number was around 4000. We’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars on border security. So we kind of have the system that was set up to respond to unauthorized migrants who are single adults and not really designed to respond to families and children. And so in the summer of 2019, that was sort of a really big issue and crisis that we faced where there wasn’t enough bed space for some of these family and children. We weren’t doing a good job of processing them in a safe and humane way. And there was also a period where the Trump administration was attempting to separate these families and relying on enforcement to sort of deter future asylum seekers from coming, which which wasn’t very effective.


Ali Noorani [00:04:27] But the other thing that was happening in 2019, it was the migrant protection protocols, that’s really when we saw the MPP program reach its height and, more importantly, the word of MPP as a program really spread through Central America’s region and yet people still continue to come. Is that fair?


Danilo Zak [00:04:44] Yeah, that’s a great point. So the MPP program, as you mentioned, that’s where asylum seekers arriving in the U.S. would be turned back to wait in Mexico for prolonged periods while their asylum cases proceeded. And often and really dangerous areas in Mexico, there were a number of instances of rapes, kidnapings, murders, violent incidents among those who are forced to return to Mexico. And as you mentioned, that was implemented in early 2019. It was continued. The use of MPP continued throughout the increase in arriving migrants in 2019, but we didn’t really see it have any deterrent effect, which I think is what the Trump administration intended for some of these significant restrictions. Because, of course, a big reason why these migrants are coming is more about the push factors in the situation but that they’re facing in Central America and gang violence in the area, corruption in the area. Recently, we’ve got the hurricanes. And so, the implementation of the migration protection protocols, which is what’s been called the man in Mexico, didn’t really have an impact, as you mentioned, on the arrival of asylum seekers.


Ali Noorani [00:05:47] So that’s 2019, and 2020 Covid-19 hits. And for all intents and purposes, the border is shut down. So let’s fast forward to 2021. What have the numbers looked like since President Biden was inaugurated?


Danilo Zak [00:06:00] Yeah. So as you mentioned, when Covid-19 hit March 2020 and then we put a series of border restrictions in place that are sort of covid-19 pandemic specific. The numbers of overall arrivals sort of also went dramatically down in March 2020, but then they began steadily rising even you know, by April, we saw these numbers tick up. These overall numbers of arrivals pick up in April 2020 and then continue to rise throughout the presidential election in November. And then when Biden took office in January, they were continuing to rise and then that takes us to today where the numbers are higher than they’ve been in quite a long time. So according to Customs and Border Protection, in March 21, we had 172,000 total apprehensions or encounters at the southwest border. Of that 172,000, we know that 208 percent was due to recidivism, high recidivism, where folks can to cross over and over again. And then we also know that a 100,000 of that total number are single adults, 50,000 are family units, and 20,000 approximately where unaccompanied children and actually about 80 percent of those were from Honduras and and Guatemala specifically. So it’s important to sort of break down that overall number and think here are the different kinds of people who are coming. Here is why they’re coming. Here is what they’re hoping. Some of them are looking to cross, the single units cross for new prospects of economic opportunity. Those from Mexico, the families of unaccompanied children, looking for protection. And that really helps us turn towards the practical solutions for each of these groups. I think it’s really important to sort of dive underneath these numbers and think about where folks are actually coming from.


Linda Chavez [00:07:43] These are people who families, by and large, who have been deported. They been apprehended, sometimes detained, and then sent back to Mexico.


Ali Noorani [00:07:54] Linda Chavez, a former Reagan White House official and currently a senior fellow here at the Forum, traveled down to Nogales, Arizona, and crossed over into Nogales, Mexico to get a sense of what’s happening on the ground. She wrote about her experience at the border in the Bulwark. And if you’ve read that piece, you know that this is where it gets interesting. Linda tells of a different reality than the one that we see from afar.


Linda Chavez [00:08:17] You know, you expect when when you walk into a place like that, it would be like going to a homeless shelter or something in the United States. You you expect people to look beaten up, downtrodden, you know, with no hope. I didn’t experience that. I experienced families that were tending to their children. You know, I don’t think they look like they were out for a day in the park, but they had dignity. Everyone I saw was well-dressed in the sense that they were clean, they were orderly. As I said in my piece, there was not a person there that I would not have welcomed into my home and sat at my dining room table. And there were about 100 people there, a lot of mothers with young children, a lot of single men. The men at that point, this was about 10 o’clock in the morning, had already eaten their meal and they were lining up. I guess they have communal showers there for some of these people. This is the first shower they’ve had in weeks, certainly days. And they all look like, you know, the kind of people you would see working in Washington, D.C. if you go to the Home Depot on the morning of the week, 7:00 in the morning, they’re going to be a lot of guys who look like this inside the store, you know, getting all of their construction materials to go to their jobs. They were very little different than the kind of people you see in places like Silver Spring, Maryland.


Ali Noorani [00:09:44] Was it a surprise because that’s not what we read about every single day?


Linda Chavez [00:09:47] Yes.


Ali Noorani [00:09:48] I mean you’re a person who follows the immigration news really closely.


Linda Chavez [00:09:51] Well, first of all, you expect to see these floods of people. I mean, you expect to see hordes of people. If you look at the evening news, I mean, they’re showing, you know, large crowds of people. This is, you know, if it bleeds, it leads kind of journalism where you want to get the most dramatic pictures. They’re not showing this kind of orderly process where people are sitting down to a meal. Yes, they, you know, they’re they’re in hardship. I mean, they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t. But as I say, these are human beings who have lives, who are trying to improve their lives. And for the most part, they are able to maintain that sense of family and that sense of personal dignity.


Ali Noorani [00:10:35] I think the first thing that people need to know is that no one really wants to be here. That’s something that’s a very common refrain I heard yesterday speaking from a woman from southern Mexico. And she said, if I could go back to my home, if I could go back to be close to the graves of my parents and to put flowers on their graves, I would do it in a heartbeat. And many other people who talk about how much they love their hometowns, the beautiful places that they live. This is not people’s first, second or third choice. It’s a last resort. And I think that that’s what we need to understand. I think about the border.


Ali Noorani [00:11:12] That’s Joanna Williams, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative. She’s been with KBI for nearly six years, but just recently stepped into this important leadership role. They’ve had to grow exponentially in the last few years and be creative in doing so.


Ali Noorani [00:11:26] We’re only able to do what we do because of the great community and partnerships that we have, whether those are people who help us find volunteers or other organizations who are providing specific services and using our building, we work collaboratively and we also work creatively. We do have a strategy and we do have plans, but we’re open to responding to the changing moment. And I think that communities in other places that are working with immigrants can embrace that similar spirit of collaboration and especially the multi dimensionality. I think that’s what I what I’m sorry to see lacking in a lot of work, because it’s so powerful and we pair humanitarian aid with education and advocacy. We’re truly working towards change. And so that multidimensional work and doing so not just as one organization, but in collaboration and in a collaboration that’s seeking equity within our work, just like we do through our bi-nationality. So we actually exist as two legal entities where US legal entity and the Mexican legal entity, we have U.S. staff and Mexican staff. It’s a great challenge to be binational, but it’s also a great opportunity because when we’re talking about what we need to live out solidarity across borders or we need to come together as societies, we’re not just projecting that out into the public. We’re having to figure that out in our own organization. What does it look like to be a bi-national organization? We don’t have all of the answers, but we’re willing to live into the process. And I think that that makes our work more authentic because we’re working through the very invitation’s the challenges that we’re making to other people in the public. The second piece that I would say is critical is our rootedness in the experiences and relationships with migrants. We as an organizationur , orole is to listen attentively to the people who come through our doors and and really allow them to shape the work that we do. I think about, for example, a few years ago we added a legal fellow program where we added U.S. Immigration Legal Services in partnership with the Florence Project in Arizonand, and we did that largely because of a few immigrants that we had accompanied in a deep way, who maybe would have been able to access asylum but didn’t have access to legal representation. And so it was that accompaniment and their experiences that pushed us to take the next strategic step. And then the third reason that we’re unique is because we look at this in a multidimensional way. We’re responding to immediate needs, but we’re also working toward structural change in the US and in Mexico.


Ali Noorani [00:13:58] Through listening that Joanna is talking about, Keino has been able to provide very basic, but also, life saving services to these families.


Linda Chavez [00:14:06] They used to provide more overnight shelter. They used to be able to do up to one hundred people overnight. Since the pandemic, because of the social distancing requirements, they can hold about 10 families. And so they did have a small number of people in bunk beds that were on the second floor. I was able to go and take a look and tour that area. And it’s a sad area. I mean, you’ve got mothers with young children. They’re in bunk beds, you know, on plastic mats without sheets. They’ve got, you know, sheets separating them to give them a little bit of privacy. But those who have no place else to go and may be in danger for one reason or another end up there. And that was a somewhat more sad sight than downstairs where people were eating and showering.


Ali Noorani [00:15:03] Did you get a sense how long families are going to wait on the Mexico side of the border after being returned? And what’s their next step?


Linda Chavez [00:15:10] It depends. Some, you know, some will try again. And the saddest story, and I wrote about it in my piece, was a story of a three generational family from the state of Guerrero in southern Mexico. It was a grandparents, their adult children and their grandchildren who had fled their village on foot. They did notan, my people start off their trek, at least in a bus. When they have to cross an international border, they have to get off and come another way, if they don’t have proper visas. But these people started on foot in Mexico to make their way north because they had had a couple of family members killed already. And in fact, it was at the funeral for a couple of the family members that the whole family snuck off and made their trek north. Well, they got there in 2019, in 2020, two of the adults decided to go back and they went back, and they were killed. So, the rest of the family is still waiting there. They don’t have a choice. They really don’t have a choice. They have to wait until they can be registered as asylum seekers. And of course, that process, although finally we are registering people again, it’s still a very slow process and they’re increasing the numbers, but not to the degree that there is the need. So they will wait as long as their money holds out. And how some of them have been able to get work in the Kino Border Initiative does try to help those who are eligible to get permits to be able to work in Mexico. Some of them, you know, may be able to put together some semblance of a life in Mexico and in may even not end up going north. But most of them still want to come into the United States one way or another, and particularly those who are fleeing the kind of extreme violence that occurs in the Northern Triangle.


Ali Noorani [00:17:13] Joanna says threats of violence to families is not rare.


Ali Noorani [00:17:17] So I think about Elaina, for example, from who’s from the state of Guerrero, which is in southern Mexico, and she had a good job there. She was a single mom, so she had her 12 year old son was working, but then was assaulted, was sexually assaulted. And when she reported that assault, then started to receive threats and ultimately had to flee from her small town and came up here just a couple of weeks after the pandemic began and after the border closed. So she came in late March of last year. And when she arrived, she she doesn’t have anybody who can support her in the US. So she was surviving just on her savings from her job in Guerrero, which because she didn’t have a support network here within a month, she had burned through those savings and was at the point where she thought she might be sleeping on the street with her son. We were able to support her in finding an apartment. She was able to find a job here, but she’s day in and day out just doesn’t feel safe. She herself has been threatened and robbed here in Nogales. Her son has been approached by people in organized crime to even maybe to recruit him. And she said to me one time, she said, you know, all that I want is for my son to be able to go and play in a park. He’s 12 years old. Now he’s 13. He turned 13 while being in Nogales. And he’s never been able to just go and play in the park because it’s never been safe enough for him to do that. So every day that Elaina is waiting, here is another day of insecurity. It’s another day of living and economic precarity. It’s another day that her son isn’t in school. He’s he hasn’t been in school for a year and a half almost. And so when we talk about the wait, what does a year mean or what does a year and two months mean? I know that all of us in our society, we’ve been waiting a lot in the last year since covid started. But the cost of that wait comes in this day and day out, relentlessness and fear and each day doesn’t matter.


Ali Noorani [00:19:19] Each day matters. And unfortunately, one thing that we’ve learned from the pandemic is that those days can quickly turn into weeks. But is the pandemic causing some of these problems now? As Linda outlines, Title 42 has made things much more complicated.


Linda Chavez [00:19:35] Well, it’s had a lot of impact on the whole migration process, as people who don’t follow this, like you and I do every day, may not know. In the past, before the pandemic led to the invocation of the public health law that says that you could turn away people at the border. If you got caught trying to get into the United States and you were detained, when you were sent back, you knew that if you tried to come back again, that, in fact, you would be committing a felony and there were very grave consequences and then you could be barred from entering the United States for ten years. It had a dramatic impact. Well, but there was a whole whole long process she had to go through in order to be deported. And under Title 42 of the health law president, then President Trump invoked, you didn’t have to go through that process. You could turn people away immediately because they were deemed to present a public health threat. One of the things that that did was to, number one, not create a record, not necessarily create the kind of onus that a Title 18 criminal infraction would. And so many of the people turn back, try again and again and again. And so the numbers that we’re seeing, I mean, the numbers that we saw last month, which were the highest really since since 2000, these are in part, I think, an artifact of the invocation of Title 42, because you have a lot of single men, particularly, who, if they’re caught and returned and they’re really trying hard to get in to be able to to earn a living, they’ll go back again. And that may be true of some of the families as well, although many of the families. Fifty three thousand, seven hundred and eighty two people who entered in March were in family units, many of those are not trying to get in just to work. They are actually claiming asylum. And so their status is somewhat different and more complicated. And we have still yet to work out how it is we’re going to handle the more than a million backlog of asylum seekers who are already in the queue waiting to have a hearing.


Ali Noorani [00:21:57] So it’s complicated. And Danilo, who we talked to earlier, says this is part of the problem to getting to real solutions and real solutions require a serious look at the root of the problem.


Danilo Zak [00:22:09] I think there are a lot of misperceptions just because there’s been so much sort of political rhetoric around the border. One thing I want to touch on is the migration protection protocols that some people have said the Biden administration has sort of, you know, gotten rid of the migration protection policies. And that’s why we’ve seen so many migrants arrive at the border. But as we discussed before, first of all, migration protection protocols haven’t been in place really since March 2020, so, you know, it’s not something that the Biden administration did because Title 42, was sort of already in place instead of MPP. The Biden administration is allowing some of the folks who are forced to return to Mexico back in slowly. But I don’t think that that quite makes sense as a reason for why we’d see an increase in migrants. And then the other thing I think there are some misconceptions about is a lot of people discussing these folks coming from Central America, as if Central America is just this one sort of violent mass of countries. I think it’s really important to understand that these are three different countries that have different contexts and different situations. So some migrants may be fleeing specifically damage done by the recent hurricanes, especially in Honduras. In Guatemala, they have particular issues in the agricultural highlands area. These countries have different sort of measures and institutions in place for protecting internally displaced persons. So we think about root causes because I think it’s really important to focus on the individual needs of these countries and how they can be protecting their own citizens to prevent some of this migration from happening.


Ali Noorani [00:23:38] Joanna from Kino Border Initiative says it even goes further than that.


Joanna Williams [00:23:42] I think that what people who are against immigration, but even sometimes immigrant advocates do, is that they make immigrants at the border especially seem so different from us. You know, it’s these families are in desperate circumstances and it’s almost looking for pity. So the approaches that we take are either looking to generate pity or to or degenerate hate and exclusion. And we haven’t leaned into the approach of empathy of: can we really see all that we have in common with folks here at the border? You know, I’m a mom now. I have a seven month old baby. And and when I sit and I listen to the moms and dads here talk about the decisions they’ve made, that are imperfect decisions, but the decisions they’ve made as parents, I think these are the kinds of decisions, in a much different way. But these are the kinds of decisions that any parent faces. And some parents have more privilege and more resources to make them. But I think that the overarching misconception is to think of family and families and people at the border as fundamentally different than us, when in reality we have so much that we share in our common humanity and our common aspirations and our common commitment to each other. A lot of people with power, it’s not in their interest really to solve the issue. There are a lot of people who profit literally financially off of the situation or sometimes profit politically off of this situation. And so it’s not in their interest to solve it. It’s in their interest to keep it in this semi broken state. And the other piece that maybe goes alongside is that a lot of people throughout the U.S. feel disempowered and really get overwhelmed by the complexity and they throw up their hands and say, well, it’s just so complicated at the border. I don’t even understand the news I’m reading. There’s nothing I can do. And yet, when we actually do take action in this community, when we do feel empowered, we see that there is change. I think about, for example, the family seperations in 2018, communities were outraged and they protested and they pushed and that had an effect. That made a difference. And so people do have power, but they feel overwhelmed by the system. So I think that’s why it’s important for everyone to focus on what is the piece that I can do? Where is the action that I can take? Because otherwise we still won’t see change.


Ali Noorani [00:26:10] Linda Chavez says the real solution is looking at our existing laws.


Linda Chavez [00:26:14] The only solution is in fixing the laws that are now antiquated and don’t meet the needs of America’s economy, frankly. I mean, one of the things I’ve always tried to emphasize is that we want to bring immigrants into the United States, not just to be nice to people from other parts of the world, but more because we need them, because we need labor. The United States population is aging. The kinds of jobs that are available don’t just include the high tech jobs, the STEM jobs, where even some conservatives seem to be willing to at least consider letting in people with advanced degrees in computer science come in. But they also include people who have less than a high school degree. The very people that I talked about who you see in Home Depot, the people who pick our fruits and vegetables, I mean, agricultural workers in the United States today are essential. They put food on our table, and yet the majority of them are here without documentation. They are unauthorized. And so we need to change those laws. I think we need to modernize our asylum laws. Are the asylum seekers who are coming here now exactly the kind of asylum seekers that our current law was written for? No, they’re not. They’re fleeing different situations. They’re not necessarily fleeing political oppression. They’re not necessarily fleeing the kind of international terrorism that we think of, but they are fleeing violence. And much of that violence is being driven by the drug trade. And those drugs are being produced and sent north because there is demand for them in the United States. This is not a problem that American citizens don’t have some complicity in. I mean, this is not just a problem created in these countries. It’s a there’s a symbiosis between the United States and the drug producing countries. So I think we need changes to asylum laws. I think we need changes most to legal immigration laws, and we need to give people a path to come legally. Many of the people who were coming have skills we need. They should be able to come on a temporary or permanent basis. I think both pathways ought to be available. And I think that if we were to change laws, you would see the numbers of people trying to come in a disorderly, unauthorized weight dropped dramatically.


Linda Chavez [00:28:50] But there is hope. And Joanna says we must keep working for these families and be good allies to immigrants in our own communities.


Linda Chavez [00:28:58] Have any perfect stories. But I think that there are inspiring stories of welcome. I think of a family from a couple of years ago that had fled from El Salvador and they tried to seek asylum in southern Mexico. They were in that asylum process, but they weren’t safe in southern Mexico either. They started to receive threats and so they came up to the border. They didn’t have anybody that could receive them in the U.S. They wanted to go through the asylum process, but didn’t have a place to stay. And a community, a church actually in Ohio, opened up their doors and said, we can host them. We’re going to pay for their apartment, we’ll support them. And they’re encouraged. They’re still in the asylum process. Asylum process takes many years, but the church has welcomed them so well and they as a family have added so much to that church. It’s extraordinary to just hear from the parishioners about how critical that decision was for their community, that it’s made their community, their faith, life and their community life stronger. The act of welcoming the Salvadoran family and of course, for the Salvadoran family to have their kids grow up in a safe place where they can go to school has been essential. So I think the first step is to get to know immigrants in your own community throughout the United States in lots of different ways. There’s immigrant communities, whether that’s agricultural or in restaurants and in neighborhoods. And so making the effort to think who are some people that I can meet who are local? Because at the border there is a unique reality or unique microcosm at the border. But I don’t think that the answer is for everybody to come here to visit the Kino Border Initiative. I think it’s for people to have experiences of encounter and relationship and friendship and then allow themselves to be pushed one step and invited one step further. So maybe that looks like doing some local advocacy in your own city. What are my city’s policies when it comes to immigration and and welcoming immigrants or helping people integrate? Maybe it looks like advocacy on a federal level, really being creative about using your particular power and your in your gifts and talents to then once you’re rooted in those relationships, figure out, OK, what will I do now to be a good friend to the people that I’m meeting in my community?


Ali Noorani [00:31:23] You can find a link to Linda Chavez’s piece in the bulwark, learn more about the Kino Border Initiative and find more information about the current situation at the border at our website, If you like what you hear, subscribe to Only in America, wherever you’re listening to this episode. Only in America is produced and edited by Kate Lutz, Joanna Taylor, and Becka Wall. Our artwork and graphics are designed by Karla Leyja. I’m Ali Noorani. I will talk to you next week.

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