“Border Crisis” Background

The specter of a “crisis” has often been invoked to describe the U.S.-Mexico border region. This narrative is strategically employed to paint the border as a threat to national security, which in turn allows issues around human rights and dignity at the border to be ignored. Using this language, former President Trump and his anti-immigrant allies used it as a tool to “build the wall,” increase the use of military-style technology on the border, raise the number of law enforcement agents patrolling the region, and harshly punish undocumented border-crossers.

The “border crisis” narrative justifies such policies, while in reality, issues at the border call for a nuanced understanding of history, politics, people and conditions across the globe that are the real root causes of migration.

Today, under the Biden Administration, despite the current President’s intentions to pivot from Trump’s racist and violent attacks on migrants and, in particular, migrants in the border region, the border issues remains a political target. There has been continued manipulation of the “crisis” which is being used as a diversion from failed Republican policies, not the least of which is their continued mishandling of the pandemic in which 564,000 and counting in the US have lost their lives and communities are facing near economic collapse. The tactic is being used again to raise the specter of the border crisis, using language such as “surge,” “tsunami,” “flood” to describe the arrival of migrants, in a direct attempt to raise alarm and sabotage the Biden administration’s efforts to bring relief to millions of migrant families.

First, we are seeing a seasonal flow that is not unlike past springtimes, with the exception of 2020 which was impacted by the onset of the pandemic and the closure of the border. The root causes that are forcing people to flee their homes continue to persist and are in fact worse due to the global health crisis. People are pushed to take the dangerous journey and risk their lives because of conditions exacerbated by climate disasters, poverty, violence and now an economic crisis and food insecurity deepened by Covid-19. This is the real crisis, a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions due to policies and inaction that are the direct causes of migration.

I think that the situation on the US Mexico border has changed. We see an effort from the Biden administration to try to create a system to receive migrant children and migrant families that meet the Flores Act, but in the end we are still working under a system that increasingly criminalizes the right to migrate and the right to seek refuge.

And so while these conditions remain the same, while this system that really criminalizes migration remains in place, and while we don’t work with other countries to create legal pathways, and to create protections for those that have to move, that are forced to move, due to political unrest, due to devastating poverty, and increasingly due to climate change, we are going to see these large numbers of communities migrating around the world.

—Alma Maquitico, NNIRR

For some current perspectives on the so-called “crisis” at the border, here are a few recent articles that put things into perspective.

From the No Border Wall Coalition press conference, March 25, 2021.

“We are also here because the voices of community members who actually live and work here on the border have been totally left out of the conversation on the border and as a result the reality of the situation has been grossly distorted.”

A short film called “The New World Border” also introduces these perspectives. It was produced in 2001, but remains relevant in providing counterpoints to the narratives that push for border militarization, detention and deportation.


Like any geographical border, the U.S.-Mexico boundary line has shifted throughout history in both location and meaning. The legal statuses and racialized perceptions of immigrants who cross the border have been historically contingent as well. These shifts have been marked by violence and displacement, closely linked to the expansion of the U.S. territory. Important moments in the history of the U.S.-Mexico border are highlighted in this timeline.

Further suggested reading and resources on border history:

  • NPR interview with historian Rachel St. John, author of the book “Line in the Sand.” The author traces the history of the establishment of the current political border, arguing that the U.S. has actually never had ‘control’ over the border.
  • This story map from The New York Times, “Before the Wall: Life Along the U.S.-Mexico Border,” visits border towns and features the reflections of residents on how the construction of the border wall has changed their daily life and environment.
  • The Intercept produced a video project called Best of Luck with the Wall to draw attention to the geographic reality of the border region. The filmmaker writes that “The southern border is a space that has been almost entirely reduced to metaphor. It is not even a geography. Part of my intention with this film is to insist on that geography.”
  • UTNE Reader article on the meaning of borders. This text captures parts of the U.S.-Mexico border’s history and explores the real reasons behind its existence: “While frequently justified by security needs, the plethora of 21st century border walls more often signify wealth inequality and fear of foreign culture.”
  • Incendiary Traces’ piece, A Brief History of Border Walls, puts the U.S.-Mexico border wall in a global historical context. “The presence of a border wall here in Southern California reminds us of the similarities that exist between the United States and other countries engaged in border conflict and control.”
  • Democracy Now! interview with Aviva Chomsky about “How Immigration Became Illegal.” This short interview gives an introduction to the fact that “illegal immigrants” are a relatively recent conception packed with racism and embedded in systems oppression. A person’s “illegality” forces them into a permanent second-class status.


The U.S.-Mexico border economy is highly important for both countries. The practice of circular migration by Mexican laborers is as old as the border itself, and as the meaning of the boundary changes so does the manner in which goods and people cross it. This movement of capital and labor affects international, national, and local economies. Additionally, the implementation of U.S.-supported economic policies throughout Latin America has destabilized many countries, forcing many people to migrate. While often overshadowed by discussions of “legality” and national security, the economic aspect of the border has substantial influence in contemporary immigration debates.

Neoliberal Economic Context: Economic activity at the U.S.-Mexico border is defined by neoliberal policies, and the Mexico Solidarity Network has written a history of neoliberalism as it relates to Mexico and the border region. The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 has profoundly affected the border. This article from The Nation, How US Policies Fueled Mexico’s Greatest Migration, traces the consequences of NAFTA that force Mexicans to emigrate. President Trump has referred to NAFTA as “the worst trade deal in history,” and wants to renegotiate it. In June 2017, the AFL-CIO released an extensive list of recommendations to reform NAFTA.

Border Economies: The Immigration Policy Center created a fact sheet on Mexico-U.S. economics and the border that summarizes the scale of economic interactions between the two countries, with particular attention to tourist economies at ports of entry. Increased border militarization, whether through hiring more Border Patrol agents or building more detention centers, is often marketed to border residents as a way to strengthen local economies, but the Revitalize Not Militarize campaign has worked to advocate for alternative forms of economic growth. According to People Helping People, the presence of border enforcement agents and technologies has put small border towns like Arivaca, Arizona, on lockdown. According to a report by the United-States Border Health Commission, if the U.S. border region were counted as the 51st state, it would rank last in access to health care; last in per capita income; first in the numbers of impoverished schoolchildren; and first in the number of children without health insurance.

Immigrant Labor: Many sectors of the U.S. economy rely on immigrant laborers, both authorized and undocumented. The Pew Research Center has produced a report on recent changes to the number of the undocumented laborers in the US. The Modern Farmer’s piece, The High Cost of Cheap Labor, discusses the exploitation of undocumented people working in the agriculture industry. A report by the American Immigration Council on The Impact of Immigrant Women on America’s Labor Force analyzes and draws attention to research on immigrant women in the workforce. In the piece, “Increasing Precarity: The Politics of Migrant Labor,” organizer Harsha Walia describes how “the condition of being deportable assures the ability to super-exploit and to dispose of migrant workforce without consequences.”

The Drug War: Drug trafficking on the border is often referenced in discussions about border security and enforcement. The so called “Mexican Drug War” has a complicated history, and in this article from Jacobin Magazine, “How the Cartels Were Born,” the relationship between U.S. free trade policies, Mexican politics, and the growth of drug cartels is unraveled. Dawn Paley’s article, “Drug War Capitalism,” outlines the impact of the U.S. “war on drugs” on the stability of Colombia and Mexico. The destabilization described in both articles is a key factor in forcing people to migrate to the U.S., by any means possible. In the Mesoamerican Working Group’s 2013 report, “Rethinking the Drug War in Central America and Mexico,” they analyze “war on drugs” policies, including their consequences on migration and violence against women.


Much of the content in “Just Borders” relates to the consequences of the “border crisis” narrative, such as the militarization of the region and the death of desert border-crossers. The policies that stem from this narrative have profound effects on people’s lives, including their freedom of movement, right to due process, and right to seek asylum. As the Border Network for Human Rights reminds us, “The border is not primarily a testing ground for national policies, but an extraordinarily rich community that people from countless backgrounds and walks of life call home.” Because this reality of the border is often ignored, residents see a lack of investment in community needs, destruction of the natural environment, restrictions on freedom of movement and due process rights, and the militarization of their daily life.

Based in Arivaca, Arizona, People Helping People is an organization of residents that focuses on demilitarizing their town and calling attention to abuse by Border Patrol. Watch this video about an action they organized around the Border Patrol checkpoint in Arivaca.

In this story map titled Embattled Borderlands, Krista Schyler compiled striking imagery and observations on the militarization policies that threaten all borderland residents of all species.

To combat the “border crisis” narrative and provide an alternative vision, the Border Network for Human Rights compiled a report called The New Ellis Island. They use the notion of “human security” to frame discussions of “the border we see” as well as “the border we imagine.”

Along with militarization and securitization of the border, the U.S. government has responded to the “border crisis” through criminalization and harsh sentencing of undocumented border crossers as well as longtime residents of the U.S. NNIRR’s 2011 report, Injustice for All, describes the rise of the immigration policing regime. Our findings are supported by community reports on the many ways immigrants are affected by border policies, such as problems of racial profiling, incarceration, militarization, and family separation. To frame this report in the context of the Trump administration, read Aviva Chomsky’s piece in TruthOut, “How Bill Clinton and Barack Obama Laid the Groundwork for Trump’s Immigration Policies.”

Human Rights Watch’s 2013 report, Turning Migrants into Criminals, describes the historical criminalization of undocumented immigrants, and analyzes how this trend has recently multiplied under new anti-immigrant policies. It argues that the supposed deterrence this criminalization creates is extremely limited and costly. During Trump’s tenure, the Department of Justice, headed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, doubled down on failed policies of deterrence. Sessions issued two sentencing guideline memos for federal prosecutors that affect the criminalization of immigrants. The Sessions’ April 11, 2017 memo asks prosecutors to increase felony charges for unauthorized entry and reentry, and the Sessions’ May 10, 2017 memo is a more general urging to employ harsher sentencing across the country. For analysis, see this article from The Marshall Project.

Multiple executive orders, and hundreds of policy and administrative changes during the Trump administration greatly expanded the criminalization of immigrants and tore apart the immigration and asylum systems. These devastating actions compounded decades of damaging policies that have caused deep harm to immigrant communities and trampled human rights and due process. The current administration has many challenges ahead to bring about needed reforms and relief, as promised.