What’s Happening at the U.S.-Mexico Border?

Learn more about Laura Collins.
Laura Collins
Director, Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative
George W. Bush Institute

Thousands of Central American migrant children fleeing poverty and violence are in detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border. The headline-making surge once again spotlights the debate on how the United States handles holding immigrant children and the facilities they are detained in.

Thousands of Central American migrant children fleeing poverty and violence are in detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border. The headline-making surge once again spotlights the debate on how the United States handles holding immigrant children and the facilities they are detained in. 

The designated shelters that house these children are near capacity, forcing the Biden Administration to reactivate detention facilities such as one in Carrizo Springs, Texas. This move reignited the term “kids in cages” and calls to question the dignity in which these children are being detained.   

Why can’t the United States free all children from these detention facilities? 

The United States cannot simply release children into the country immediately after their arrival, an issue that becomes even more acute when ensuring the children remain in safe conditions that limit their exposure to COVID-19. Any solution must recognize these challenges when finding a way to treat children in government custody with dignity and attention to their needs. 

What is immigration detention, and how does it work? 

Entering the U.S. without permission violates the law and may carry criminal penalties. Under standard immigration processes, single adults detained at a U.S. border have a civil removal proceeding which leads to their deportation and ban from re-entering the country for several years. While waiting for their hearing, they are detained at a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility designed to hold single adults for a short amount of time. The spaces often resemble prison cells. They are not appropriate for holding children and families caught crossing the border. 

Do we detain unaccompanied children, and do they remain in child friendly facilities? 

Yes, the U.S. detains unaccompanied children, but in different conditions than adults. Unaccompanied children may be held temporarily in facilities run by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and are quickly transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR facilities are intended to be more child-friendly and for longer stays. In fact, these detention facilities must be licensed for caring for children. ORR detains children while it works to identify a family member in the U.S. who may act as a guardian for the child. 

With the recent increase of children at the border, the facilities are overburdened and the Biden Administration is attempting to find a reasonable solution.   

I’ve heard the term “kids in cages” when referring to unaccompanied migrant children. Does the United States put kids in cages? 

In 2014, the U.S. saw a surge of migrant children. The Obama Administration used warehouses to construct overflow CBP facilities. Chain link fences were used to create partitions in the warehouses creating the phrase “kids in cages.” These facilities are not the standard form of detention for children and are not intended to be long-term. 

The term caught fire during the Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance Policy which saw parents and children separated by the U.S. government so it could criminally prosecute the adults. 

The phrase has recently resurfaced due to the swell of migrant children at the border and the Biden Administration’s re-opening of the overflow detention facilities. 

What is driving the current increase in unaccompanied migrant children at the border? 

There are many reasons for the recent increase in unaccompanied migrant children, including a complicated mix of push factors (what drives migrants to leave home) and pull factors (what induces migrants to choose the U.S. as their destination). 

First, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—the Northern Triangle countries of Central America— face corruption, lack of economic opportunity, lax rule of law, and violence— including gender-based violence. On top of those factors, two incredibly destructive hurricanes hit the Northern Triangle in 2020, wreaking havoc and wiping out livelihoods. 

Second, due to COVID-19 the Trump Administration invoked Title 42, a law that allows CBP to immediately return any migrant crossing the border to the country of last transit whether they were trying to evade law enforcement or attempting to request asylum. The Trump Administration included migrant children in this order. While the Biden Administration has kept the restrictions in place for most migrants, it is allowing unaccompanied migrant children to remain in the U.S. rather than being quickly removed. The increase of migrant children seeking asylum reflects the pent-up demand that built up in 2020. 

How is the Biden Administration responding to the arrival of children at the border? 

The Biden Administration has reactivated overflow facilities and turned family detention facilities into rapid processing centers to make additional space for child migrants. On March 10, the administration also announced the resurrection of the 2014 Central America Minors program to open a new avenue for children to seek asylum in the U.S. The program will allow certain minors to apply for asylum in their home country reducing the incentive to travel to the United States to seek protection. 

These efforts confront serious health and logistical challenges. ORR only has 13,000 beds for unaccompanied children, a number that cannot accommodate the swell at our border. Although the Biden Administration attempted to house children in facilities with reduced capacity in order to provide social distancing, the administration announced in early March that it would allow these facilities to reach pre-pandemic levels to address the lack of space. 

In mid-March, the administration also announced that it would deploy Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) staff and resources to assist with caring for migrant children. This could mark a pivot toward using the agency to assist with future migration events at the border.

What was the Zero Tolerance Policy? How has the detention of children changed with each administration? 

The Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance Policy invoked a section of U.S. immigration law that allows the Department of Justice (DOJ) to prosecute a migrant for “illegal entry,” which is a misdemeanor charge that carries a federal prison sentence. Individuals convicted of these criminal violations must serve their prison sentence before going through the civil deportation proceedings. 

Under this policy, CBP officials were required to refer immigrants detained at the U.S.-Mexico border to the DOJ for criminal prosecution. Many of the adults referred for prosecution were traveling with minor children. When the adults were put into the criminal justice system, the U.S. government separated families, putting children in DHS custody. Once the children spent 20 days in DHS facilities, they were transferred to ORR facilities. 

Many of the children under the Trump Administration traveled with their families. Under the Obama Administration and what we are currently seeing in 2021, children are overwhelmingly crossing the border without a parent or legal guardian. This current trend is most likely due to parents staying in Mexico as Title 42 is still in effect. 

What about COVID-19 and migrants at the border? What is Title 42? 

Protocols and policies are in place at the border to reduce the likelihood of bringing additional COVID-19 cases into the U.S. 

One policy is known as Title 42. The Trump Administration adopted the Title 42 program in March 2020 providing CBP the authority to quickly send any migrant crossing illegally back to their last country of transit. The policy, which was introduced under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, became the principal vehicle for removing migrants from the border in the summer of 2020. The Biden Administration has continued Title 42 expulsions for most migrants, save for unaccompanied children, while also gradually expanding asylum access at the border. 

Migrants released from federal custody are tested for COVID-19 at the state and local level with help from non-governmental organizations. Migrants who requested asylum and have been waiting in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols program are tested before entering the U.S. 

COVID-19 is a global pandemic; every nation has been affected. It will continue to be a challenge faced at the border until vaccinations have reached all of us. But appropriate public health protocols, including testing and isolation, can mitigate the risk.

What does this controversy say about the challenges of managing the U.S.-Mexico border? 

The United States needs to adopt a border system that can adjust to major changes in immigrant arrivals like the one we’re seeing now. A good example is the use of alternatives to detention programs where children and their families check-in with non-profit organizations. More broadly, the George W. Bush Institute has released recommendations for creating a nimble, long-term vision for managing migration that aims to minimize incidents. 

The pandemic also highlights the ongoing challenge all nations will face as vaccines continue to roll out. Whether the people crossing the border are conducting trade, traveling for pleasure, or migrating to another nation, COVID-19 will impact the ability of all of us to move around the world. This underscores the need for the U.S. to work closely across North and Central America to ensure that our entire region is protected through vaccination.