Source: Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters.
I live on the border. As I walk to my office at the University of Texas at El Paso, my view is of the homes and streets of Juarez. People often ask me some form of the question: What’s going on at the border? While by “the border,” they usually mean “migration,” very few have the patience to listen to the answer.
What’s going on at the border depends on many things—political strife thousands of miles away, recent moves in international diplomacy, the rise and fall of national economies, the weather, or even whose cousin was successful in making it through processing last week. There are nuances that people rarely take the time to understand. The motivations for migration vary widely from Honduras to Nicaragua to Venezuela, as does the United States’ relationship with each country and that country’s relationship with Mexico.
This complexity is often misunderstood when we hear messaging on the issue. Title 42, the public health rule that the Trump administration applied to migrants and asylum seekers at the beginning of the pandemic and is still in force, is a complex policy that takes time to unpack. The rule prevents asylum requests by allowing migrants that are apprehended or that surrender themselves to agents to be immediately expelled to Mexico. How immediate? I have seen a mother with an infant be sent back across the international bridge from El Paso to Juarez with her shoes and pants still wet from crossing the river.
What is often missing from our understanding of Title 42 is that it can only be applied when there is somewhere to send people. For some nationalities, this place is their own country. For other nationalities, this place is Mexico. This caveat is why Title 42 never applied to all nationalities—there are some countries, like Venezuela and Nicaragua, with whom the United States has poor or no diplomatic relations. As a result, the United States cannot send flights of expelled migrants to these countries. Neither can the United States send other nationalities back to Mexico unless Mexico agrees to take them. As such, Title 42 was never applied to all nationalities. This is also why, in mid-October, the flow of Venezuelans crossing the border and being processed in cities like El Paso halted when Mexico agreed to accept them. Suddenly, there was a place to send them, so Title 42 could be applied—a decision so unforeseen and rapidly implemented that I saw families divided when some members crossed just a day before others.
With the December 19 Supreme Court decision to keep Title 42 in place, Mexico potentially has a unique bargaining position from which to extract concessions from the United States or other countries. It would help the Biden administration domestically if they could return additional nationalities to Mexico. At the same time, if the experience of the expelled Venezuelans serves as a model, it would cost Mexico very little to accept these asylum seekers. In Juarez, two thousand Venezuelans lived in a camp at the river for six weeks. Mexico’s federal government—despite having agreed to accept them into Mexico—never provided shelter, food, or even bathrooms for them. Instead, the bulk of their basic necessities was provided by non-profits, faith organizations, or private citizens in Juarez and El Paso.
I do not know what the solutions for “the border” are—at least not in a specific sense. What I can say with certainty is that the challenges of migration will not be solved at the border. The border has simply become a shorthand for the complexities of migration from numerous countries, a scapegoat for domestic challenges, a backdrop for political leaders to feign fear and concern as they throw out oversimplified messages, and a target for the hatred of those who look at migrants as lesser than human.
Migration is visible at the border, but it does not come from the border. The “crisis” of migration comes from much further away—from circumstances that often stem from the very policies and interventions that the United States has unleashed upon its hemispheric neighbors over several decades. Cities like El Paso are the stage upon which the world can focus its attention, but, as El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser noted, the thousands of migrants in Juarez and El Paso are more than just a border problem. The massive movement of people within Latin America is an issue that the international community needs to examine. So, yes, there is a crisis at the border. It is a crisis of people being sold false hope, a crisis of people running out of options, a crisis of corruption and inhumanity and indifference.
Corrie Boudreaux is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at The University of Texas at El Paso and a photojournalist in the El Paso–Juarez border region.