Feb 22 2019

The Real Crisis at America’s Southern Border

Written by: Elan Schwartz

The Background

On October 13th, a caravan comprised of some 150 migrants from Central America departed from the Honduras with the hope of claiming asylum in the United States. Since its departure, the caravan has gathered nearly 8000 migrants, fleeing persecution, poverty and political instability, to join on its mission. The migrants banded together for protection, hoping that there would be safety in numbers. In reality, the opposite was the case; large numbers created the optics of an ambush on American people, and American sovereignty. Unfortunately for this group, the caravan’s journey coincided with the heat of the 2018 midterm campaigns. It was used as a political pawn by campaigners, most notably President Donald Trump. Known for his hard line on migration, especially illegal migration from the south, Trump strongly emphasized the perceived threat of a ‘migrant invasion’ from South America. Former-President Barack Obama was among commentators who argued that the caravan was being treated as a ‘political stunt’ by Trump in order to instill fear in Americans and rally his voter-base in anticipation of the midterm elections.

President Trump has routinely disregarded the fact that the migrant caravan, which was composed of mainly women and children, travelled to America for the purpose of seeking asylum. Rather, he has used shocking and racist language, framing the group as criminals, economic burdens, traffickers, and rapists. He has led an aggressive, fear-mongering, ‘us vs. them’ crusade, claiming that the caravan threatens the integrity, economy and safety of American people. Trump has made it clear, not only through his inflammatory speech but also through his actions, that he will do everything in his power as President to stop the caravan’s arrival onto US soil. The President even went so far as to dispatch 6000 troops to ‘protect’ the southern border, an act that Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, condemned as a “politically motivated mission”.

After losing the Republican majority in the midterm elections, the Trump administration used fears of the migrant caravan in a new way to further his fight for the border wall. The supposed ‘migration crisis’ has been used to first shut down the government for five weeks – the longest in US history – and then more recently to justify calling a ‘national emergency’ so that President Trump can build his wall.


Securitization of migrants

The migrant caravan fits into a larger discourse on the securitization of migrants. The securitization theory, which was developed by the scholars of the Copenhagen School, describes the process by which an issue becomes the subject of emergency or crisis. Central to the process of securitization is the securitizing actor, who is usually part of a political elite, and who securitizes an issue by articulating the existence of a threat to the survival of some referent object. In this case, what is conceived as the existential threat is the migrant caravan, and importantly also, what it symbolizes; illegal immigration into the US from the southern border. The referent object is the entity, whose very existence is under threat, in this case; the American public. What Trump determines as ostensibly threatened by the caravan’s arrival is the safety, culture, and economy of the American people. By positioning the migrant caravan as a potential security threat, Trump is able to shift the political space from the normal state of affairs to the realm of ‘emergency politics’. This shift creates impetus for extraordinary political measures and policies to flourish, such as the construction of a $5.7 billion border wall.

It is important to note that for securitization theorists, a security problem does not rely on an underlying objective threat. What Trump is doing is socially constructing a threat, which is not supported by evidence. A report from the Pew Research Centre shows that illegal immigration has been decreasing in America for years, reaching a 12-year low in 2016. The report further claims that the largest source of illegal immigration is not the result of illegal entering, but is rather the result of visa overstays. A 2017 study from the Department of Homeland Security recorded that the border wall was at its most secure stage in history. Not only are there fewer illegal entries into the US, studies have also shown that illegal and legal immigrants commit fewer crimes than native born Americans, and are not prone to terrorist activity. The Drug Enforcement Administration has denounced the theory that a wall will protect America from drug trafficking, reporting that illegal drugs predominately arrive into America through legal ports of entry via plane, boat, or vehicle. Considering all of this, there is little merit to Trump’s claim of a “crisis” caused by either legal or illegal immigration.


The real crisis is a humanitarian crisis

Trump’s mischaracterization of the crisis has real humanitarian consequences. The real danger of Trump’s crisis rhetoric is that his Administration’s policies become focused only on deterrents, as opposed to protection. The Trump administration has intensified the use an Obama-era policy known as “metering,” which limits the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter the US each day. The consequence of this policy is that migrants, many of whom have travelled for months, have been stopped short of the legal entry port and forced to wait in Mexico. Some migrants can wait for months in this limbo, unable to claim their legal asylum right by virtue of not being permitted onto US ground. The policy is also encouraging the smuggling of those who are most desperate to seek safety in the US.

Furthermore, there is also a lack of funding going toward the proper housing of asylum-seekers and migrants once they have arrived within America’s borders. Two Guatemalan children, 7 and 8 years of age, have died while being detained by US border custody in the same month. A potential reason for their deaths can be attributed to a study by the Centre for Migration Studies, which has reported that immigration officials systematically deny medical assistance to migrants who speak indigenous languages. Arguably the most despicable migration policy to date, is the ‘zero tolerance policy’ that operated last summer. Before the policy was reversed in late June after massive public outcry, 3000 children were forcibly separated from their parents while attempting to migrate into the US.

The youngest women to serve in Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has called out Trump for failing to hold up Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the right to asylum. Speaking on The Rachel Maddow Show, Cortez stated, “The President should not be asking for more money to an agency that has systematically violated human rights; the President should be really defending why we are funding such an agency at all.” President Trump is correct; there is a crisis at the US border, but it is not a crisis of national security. This is a humanitarian crisis; one that has been amplified by the Trump Administration’s policies. Family separation, the metering policy, tear-gas attacks, children dying in border custody, squalor conditions in both American detention centers and in the waiting zone of Mexico, and of course, the systematic violation of the right to asylum are the issues at stake. A border wall does not solve any of these issues, so why should the Democrats give into Trump’s plea?

Asylum seeking is not a crime; it is a human right protected under national and international law. Yes, border security is a sovereign right, but it should not be at the expense of the right to asylum, nor should these issues be conflated. There is no doubt that the increased numbers of asylum-seekers make it more difficult for the Administration to assess the legitimacy and validity of the claims. Better technology and human resources may make the process of vetting more precise and efficient, but debates over a border wall do nothing but distract from the real situation at hand. Speaking at a lecture hosted by the LSE’s European Institute, Dimitris Avramopoulos, European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, stated, “it is not by building walls that we become safer; we only become more isolated.” The American government needs to invest in more efficient, just and humane measures to house and treat migrants as they wait for their claims to be processed. We must not be isolated from nor blind to the real crisis that is at stake.



Balzacq, T. & Guzzini, S., 2015. Introduction: ‘What kind of theory – if any – is

securitization?’ International Relations, 29(1), pp.97–102.

Huysmans, Jef ,1995. ‘Migrants as a Security Problem: Dangers of “Securitizing” Societal

Issues’, in Robert Miles & Dietrich Thranhardt, eds, Migration and European

Integration: Dynamics of Inclusion and Exclusion . London: Pinter (53–72).

Waever, O. (2011) ‘Politics, security, theory’, Security Dialogue, 42(4-5) pp. 465-480.

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