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How The Southern U.S. Border Has Become A Nearly Constant Humanitarian Crisis


There were some 15,000 migrants camped under a bridge at the border in Del Rio, Texas. Now there are none, at least according to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Mayorkas tried to beat back criticism over how the camp was cleared, in part with the Trump-era policy that used the pandemic and a public health order as justification to expel many Haitian migrants. Now, to immigration experts, this is yet another turn in a cycle - a mass of migrants described in the media as suddenly appearing, a show of force by border control, a humanitarian crisis.

ALICIA SCHMIDT CAMACHO: I see the United States continuing to cling to an outdated and dangerous playbook of migrant deterrence and mass expulsion.

CORNISH: That's Alicia Schmidt Camacho, professor at Yale University. She studies ethnicity, race and migration. We brought her together with NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez to compare notes on the cycle of border crises.

So I'm going to start with you, Franco, because we have yet another administration that is looking to the idea of deterrence to solve a border crisis. What form is that taking in the Biden administration versus what Americans saw with the previous administration?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Well, in the previous administration, Audie, what we saw was a very direct and very public spoken deterrence strategy. So what we're seeing now is an administration trying to or saying that it is trying to implement a more humane policy. But he has also kept some other strong policies that the Trump administration has kept in place, such as a very controversial one called Title 42, which allows the administration to deport and remove migrants who arrive at the border without an asylum hearing. And that's what we're seeing right now with the Haitian migrants.

CORNISH: Alicia Schmidt Camacho, I want to ask you, does deterrence work?

SCHMIDT CAMACHO: No, deterrence does not work. Migrants are fleeing conditions of deep political crisis, enormous economic need and the daily insecurity of threats to their lives in places like Honduras, in Haiti, in El Salvador. So for people to undertake the extraordinary journey across the peninsula into Panama and work their way to the U.S.-Mexico border as they have, we must understand that they're fleeing conditions that are untenable.

CORNISH: I want to talk more about that, Franco, because Vice President Harris has been charged with looking at the root causes of migration from Central America in particular. But how is that actually going, and how is it any different from previous administrations?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, it's a good question, Audie, and it's a tough question to answer. I mean, the administration has put Vice President Harris in charge of this effort. It is a big effort. It is a very ambitious effort.

CORNISH: And a job Joe Biden was tasked with doing himself at one point.

ORDOÑEZ: Exactly. It was an effort that, when he was vice president, he led. And I think that the fact that it is being done again, I think, shows how difficult this effort is. And the United States, in fact, has sent billions of dollars to Central America to address these issues. And it's been very - it's had limited results. There is also limited buy-in from some of the leaders in these countries.

CORNISH: Alicia, I see your eyebrows up.

SCHMIDT CAMACHO: I think the first and foremost failure of U.S. immigration policy has been the tendency to treat migration as a problem. It's worth noting that most of these populations are following established migratory routes. They're coming not only because of conditions that we know well that produce mass migration, like political collapse, like earthquakes and climate change. But they're also coming because the U.S. actively recruits them. This is the labor force that runs so much of U.S. consumer society, that allows so many of us the comforts of everyday life, including people who mow lawns, people who build houses, people who care for our children, our sick and our elderly. So what I see is Biden clinging to the same dangerous laws in the face of major political contests over who does belong or not belong in the United States.

CORNISH: Is there a political will to change things, Franco?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, I would say there is a desire to. There is a strong desire. Just as someone who has covered this issue for a while, I can't really think of too many issues that are as emotionally taxing and divide people on political, emotional and perspective than this one.

CORNISH: Alicia, in the world of people who study migratory patterns and who kind of study this issue, what is emerging as a new way of thinking?

SCHMIDT CAMACHO: Well, I think there is a daunting project of decriminalizing ordinary migration, of needing to dismantle the large-scale carceral system that has characterized the history of the Department of Homeland Security and its management of mass migration. But at the local level, cities like mine in New Haven are creating programs that integrate undocumented people, new arrivals, refugees very successfully and find ways to provide services and relief to people in need but also find benefit from the extraordinary vitality of new migrants who build businesses, who create strong social networks that have uplifted cities like New Haven in a period of economic challenge.

CORNISH: That's Alicia Schmidt Camacho, a professor at Yale University.

Thank you for your time.

SCHMIDT CAMACHO: Thank you, Audie, and thank you all.

CORNISH: And NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Thank you so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
Miguel Macias
Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.
Amy Isackson