August 12, 2022

IntelBrief: Historic Surge of Migrants Cross the U.S. Southern Border

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Bottom Line Up Front

  • According to U.S. border officials, the number of encounters at the U.S. southern border are at record highs, with the total number this year already eclipsing those of last year’s historic surge.
  • Since April 2022, the governors of Arizona and Texas have sent thousands of migrants on chartered buses from the U.S. southern border to Washington D.C. and New York City, straining already strapped municipal infrastructures there.
  • The debate surrounding U.S. immigration policy is likely to further escalate political and social tensions amongst an already polarized American electorate, and will likely impact the upcoming mid-term elections.
  • Increases in border crossings, coupled with political gamesmanship could serve to affirm extremist narratives and bolster recruitment for violent far-right extremist groups.

A record number of migrants have crossed or attempted to cross the southwest U.S. border as an unprecedented heatwave and historic temperatures have plagued the United States. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, as of June there have been 1,746,119 southwest land border encounters this fiscal year, eclipsing the total number of crossings for the entirety of 2021. In June, 26% of the encounters involved individuals who had attempted to cross the border previously, a significant increase when compared to the average one-year re-encounter rate of 15% for fiscal years 2014-2019. Efforts of Vice President Kamala Harris and the agreements reached at the Summit of the Americas in June have been unable to relieve pressure on the U.S. southern border, in the face of political and economic pressures driving migrants towards the U.S.

The significant rise in the number of migrants crossing the border, as well as those making multiple attempts, occurs as the pandemic public health rule Title 42 continues to be enforced, ensuring that many seeking asylum – 44% of all encounters in June – are swiftly expelled as they await a hearing on their case. Despite the roll back other pandemic-era travel restrictions, the Biden administration’s attempts to end Title 42 were halted in May by a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. The decision places further pressure on a staggeringly backlogged immigration and asylum system, adding to the over 2 million people awaiting adjudication outside the U.S. due to Title 42 while also possibly infringing on rights codified in U.S. law. Increasing numbers of migrants from India, Turkey, Russia, Haiti, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and Nicaragua are crossing the border in part due to the difficulty border agents have in applying Title 42 to some of those nationalities, signaling a key demographic shift to individuals who are able to remain in the country as their asylum claims are processed.

The situation at the border is likely to exacerbate both a burgeoning humanitarian and security situation, as migrants are increasingly exposed to the risks of harsh temperatures, human traffickers, and makeshift camps along the border, where documented sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), kidnapping, overcrowding, and limited sanitation and infrastructure create a dangerous environment on multiple fronts. The discovery in June of over 50 dead migrants in a sweltering, abandoned truck outside San Antonio, in what appeared to be the deadliest human smuggling case in modern U.S. history, encapsulated the risks migrants face when crossing the border through irregular channels and highlighted the humanitarian and security threat of human smuggling. The vast majority of migrants pay large sums of money to cross the border under the watchful eye of cartel-approved guides, not only subjecting migrants to exploitation and abuse, but also potentially contributing to the profits criminal and terrorist groups derive from human smuggling networks.

In a bit of political theatre, the governors of Texas and Arizona have sent thousands of asylum-seekers from the border to Washington D.C. and New York City on chartered buses, seeking to offload the problems triggered by the historic levels of migration and – they claim – force the federal government to take responsibility. Most of those who accept the free rides have limited resources and no family to receive them, overwhelming immigrant nonprofits and other volunteer groups. Many of the migrants have ended up homeless, sleeping on park benches, as city infrastructure already dealing with record levels of post-pandemic homelessness has been unable to accommodate the influx of migrants. The situation has escalated tensions between the cities’ Democratic mayors, the Republican governors, the federal government, and humanitarian organizations, with all sides pointing the finger at those they deem responsible for the crisis and the accompanying dearth of resources and response options.

The record level of border crossings, coupled with the division over the appropriate response, is likely to continue to escalate political and social tensions heading into the mid-term elections. According to analyses conducted by Limbik, the “Border Crisis” narrative, a QAnon conspiracy which purports that Democrats are intentionally facilitating human trafficking at the U.S.-Mexico border, has a high likelihood of resonating with the U.S. adult population, potentially increasing harm both on and offline. An increase of migrants crossing the border, alongside the political gamesmanship over the response could serve to affirm the narrative and bolster recruitment and radicalization for violent far-right extremist groups who strategically leverage human trafficking mis- and disinformation for such purposes. A comprehensive or sustainable solution to the current border situation seems unlikely, as Congress has remained unable to reach any kind of immigration breakthrough that would garner enough support from Republicans in the Senate, leaving asylum seekers vulnerable to the consequences.