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Roundtable: Examining Migrant Surge At Southern U.S. Border


A language advisory now but not for anything profane or dirty, though that depends on how you feel about politics. We're going to talk about the words surge and crisis. President Biden says the current wave of migrants coming to the southern border, mainly from Central American countries, is mostly a seasonal uptick. That's not wholly accurate.

For example, the number of children now arriving without their parents is appreciably greater than at this period last year or the year before. And while what we're seeing at the border is far from the first jump in the number of migrants, it is fair to call it a surge. And that gets to the second term, crisis. It is a humanitarian crisis and a political one for an administration that's still half a week shy of day 100. Vice President Harris is the administration's point person on the issue, and she spoke about it this morning on CNN.


VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: Most deal want to leave home. And when they do, it's usually for one of two reasons. They're fleeing some harm, or they cannot stay and satisfy the basic necessities of life such as feeding their children or having a roof over their head.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tomorrow, Harris is speaking with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. And she says she wants to visit the Northern Triangle - that's Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras - as soon as possible. We're going to look at this issue from three different places because it is complex. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has the policy and politics, and she's here in Washington, D.C. Hi, Sue.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria Martin is on the ground in Antigua, Guatemala, where many migrants leave from. Hello to you, Maria.

MARIA MARTIN: Hello to you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we also have Valerie Gonzalez on the border in Edinburg, Texas. She's reported from the Rio Grande Valley for The Monitor and The Brownsville Herald, in addition to many others. Welcome, Valerie.

VALERIE GONZALEZ: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's start with you, Valerie. Give us a sense of what the situation looks like on the ground there at the border.

GONZALEZ: We're seeing thousands of families seeking asylum in the United States. They will be released into the country, or they will be sent back to Mexico under what's known as Title 42, which means that entry is being denied to migrants due to the pandemic. Lately, we've been hearing of some families who are being expelled. Not too long ago, there was a woman who was pregnant. She had a toddler, a 1 year old, and instead of being expelled back with her mother, they were separated. So the mother was just dismayed. And there were a lot of issues with communication and just general confusion.

But in the communities where they're being released, communities like McAllen or Brownsville, there is a great need for resources. And fortunately, the nongovernmental organizations here on the ground coordinated efforts and resources like transportation, shelter space, COVID testing, hotels for quarantining, food and supplies. But on the Mexican side, that coordination has been lacking severely. Shelter space is not as great. The resources are extremely limited. In Reynosa, there's a new encampment that's starting to form, but the encampment is very dangerous. We've heard of kidnappings already, some even in broad daylight.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it sounds incredibly chaotic and difficult for the migrants there. I'd like to go to Guatemala. Maria, you know, Guatemala's a country where many migrants come from towards the United States. What are the conditions there that are driving people to leave and make the trip north?

MARTIN: Lulu, the conditions for the majority of people are, in a word, miserable. One migrant advocate says, we've gone from extreme poverty to misery. Two hurricanes have added to a situation where over 60% of Guatemalans live below the poverty line as a result of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, some 30% were in extreme poverty. And that means you can't feed your children. You live in a hut with the dirt floors, no running water, no plumbing. And even the middle class has shrunk in recent years. This is a really young country with a growing population. And thousands of young people entering the job market each year just can't find work. And you add to that corruption, cooptation of the Congress, the courts and other institutions by criminal mafias and drug traffickers and an elite business class that often resists a fair taxation structure. So there is no hope for resources to provide a good education or health care for your children. So many people see the difficult, dangerous and expensive trip north as their only option.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you seem to be suggesting that a lot of what is pushing this is economic, but there's also a great deal of violence in the region, as well.

MARTIN: Yes, there's violence. There's gangs. There's extortion, just a lack of security. Add that to the mix, and people leave.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sue, that brings us to one big factor that's changed since this time last year or the year before under the Trump administration. And that's we now have a President Biden. Did President Biden underestimate how much a change in Washington would resonate with people in places like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and Mexico?

DAVIS: Well, the Biden administration would say they didn't, that they did anticipate an increase in the numbers at the border. But clearly, they were not anticipating this level of surge or this being the kind of dominant issue that it's become in the early days of his administration. The administration is still really reluctant to call it a crisis. He's not getting a ton of cover right now from Capitol Hill. A lot of top Democrats, especially in the Senate, say this is really a presidential issue, an executive branch issue to address. But if they need something like more financial resources, maybe they could work to deliver that. There's no real quick legislative fix here. Republicans have also seen this border situation as a huge political liability for the administration. You've seen top Republicans in the House and Senate regularly traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border in the past couple of months to highlight the situation on the ground there. They've been very critical of Vice President Harris for not yet traveling down to the border since Biden has tapped her to be sort of a point person on this, although, as you noted, Harris is scheduled to be traveling to Mexico and Guatemala soon for what will be her first official trip as vice president.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joe Biden came into office with a promise to make big changes in American immigration policy. The southern border situation is just one part of that. How much of an effect is the current surge of migrants having on the immigration conversation overall? Because it is a big conversation. This is a complex issue.

DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, it's certainly had an impact because Biden and I think Democrats more broadly wanted the conversation to be about comprehensive immigration reform. But what's happening at the border and especially with so much focus on unaccompanied minors, it's just consumed that policy debate. I think it's certainly given ammunition to longtime critics who say you shouldn't even attempt comprehensive reform until the U.S. border is secure. And frankly, there's just no comprehensive legislation that exists right now that could pass either the House or the Senate. And there just isn't a ton of political will to try.

The administration is also still doing a little bit of cleanup over a controversy about capping the number of refugees that they're going to allow into the country. I think many saw that as a reflection of the political nervousness around immigration they're feeling right now. You know, initially, it was reported they were going to keep these historically low Trump-era caps in place, but there was this wave of pushback from Democrats and immigration rights activists. And they've walked that back and say they are actually going to bump up that number now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, Maria, let's look forward. Do we know what Vice President Harris and President Giammattei are going to discuss?

MARTIN: There's going to be several things on the table, including increased militarization of the border to keep migrants from Honduras from going into Guatemala, anticorruption efforts, help with COVID that Guatemala badly needs and long-term development of the region and how much of the $4 billion that Biden has promised to the region will come to Guatemala. Now, many analysts say it's going to take a kind of Marshall Plan to create the kind of development, infrastructure and public policies that will stop migration. We have to keep in mind that for the last few decades, remittances, the money sent back from the migrants, have been a kind of de facto foreign aid program for many marginalized and forgotten communities, especially Indigenous communities in Guatemala. And for the government, migration has been a safety valve. They don't have to provide services for these people. So how to convince migrants not to leave - right? - after these conversations with Giammattei and the community organizations? I think the migrants would say, promise me a job and let me make enough to feed and educate my children, to have a decent home and health care.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Valerie, talk to me a little bit about what the people who live in and around the Rio Grande Valley are hoping for as the national spotlight again descends on them.

GONZALEZ: Local leaders who are trying to balance their budgets are looking forward to finding financial relief. There were some funds that were allocated for these purposes of reimbursing communities who are spending money on migrant care. But those funds were blocked by the governor, who preferred they go to ICE for detention purposes. That is definitely one of the top concerns for leaders who are trying to find a way ahead for their local communities but also attending to these new needs due to the emergent immigration numbers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, Sue, last word to you. What are you watching as the next move on Capitol Hill?

DAVIS: Well, in the near term, a couple of border-state senators, Republican John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, just introduced a bill last week to try to address this crisis. It would do things like increase the speed of adjudicating asylum claims, provide aid to these local border communities that Valerie's mentioned and create new regional processing centers for migrants. It's a serious proposal, Lulu. I mean, it's the kind of bill you're going to watch to see if there's any momentum in Congress to act on this issue. It's good to see who might get on board for it, specifically if the Biden administration indicates it's something they could support and potentially maybe be a vehicle to be joined with other pieces of immigration legislation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Sue Davis, along with reporters Valerie Gonzalez at the border and Maria Martin in Antigua, Guatemala. Thanks to you all.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

GONZALEZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "ZIONSVILLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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