There is no ‘border crisis’ 

Wisconsin immigration lawyers worry about misinformation and backlash

Protesters gather for the march on the Trump Rally in Oskhosk, August 2020 (Photo courtesy of Voces de la Frontera Action)
Protesters gather for the march on the Trump Rally in Oshkosh, August 2020 (Photo courtesy of Voces de la Frontera Action)

Just when it seemed we were emerging from the anti-immigrant hysteria of the Trump era, our country is suddenly descending into a new moral panic.

The news of the past two weeks has been full of dire warnings about a “border crisis.” A “surge” of migrants heading for the United States is taking advantage of the hapless Biden administration and overwhelming U.S. facilities, according to this much-repeated analysis.

Even the New York Times jumped on the bandwagon this week in a newsletter to readers, in which columnist David Leonhardt diagnosed “the Democrats’ immigration problem.” The Times lays the “crisis” at President Joe Biden’s feet and claims Democrats’ problem is that they have abandoned border security and lack a coherent immigration policy, thus opening the doors to a flood of new migrants and refugees. And this has handed the Republicans a big political gift.

There are a lot of things wrong with this analysis, starting with the data, which does not, in fact, show a dramatic surge in new migrants. As the Washington Post points out in a year-to-year review of Border Patrol statistics, migration from Central America is seasonal and spring reliably coincides with a spike. Setting aside 2020 — an outlier year because of the pandemic — previous years show migration “surges” looks very similar every spring. In fact, in 2019, under the Trump administration, there was a bigger jump in apprehensions from January to February 2019 — 31% — than the “surge” of 28% from January to February 2021 that is currently making so much news.  

(Remember the migrant caravan from Central America President Trump claimed was coming to “invade” the United States back in 2018? I interviewed participants and organizers as they passed through Mexico. It wasn’t even new back then. It had been coming every Easter season — the high season for migrants because of the temperate weather — since 2008. Named “the stations of the cross” by the group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the caravan served to protect migrants by helping them band together and to bring public attention to their plight. Mothers with babies, teenagers fleeing gangs — they were a notably unthreatening group.)

Some of the current uptick in migrants on the border is explained by the usual seasonal spike, and some is due to a backlog that built up because of Trump administration restrictions.

Nevertheless, Republicans have seized on fear-mongering about a flood of new migrants as the issue that could unite their fractured party, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) pumping up the idea of a “Biden border crisis.” 

The fact is the 4,200 kids currently in U.S. detention centers, who are fleeing real crises in their home countries, deserve our attention and care. Those detention centers still look like jails, and they are getting overcrowded. But they don’t represent a crisis for the United States government, which can and will process them and reunite them with relatives in the United States. The crisis claim has more to do with politics than any real sense of emergency. And U.S. politics, whether under Biden or Trump, have very little to do with the forces that propel migration.

“I don’t think people think as much about what they’re coming to as what they’re fleeing from.” says Grant Sovern, an immigration attorney in the Madison office of the law firm Quarles & Brady. “So many kids leave because they’re being pressured to join a gang. None of the people I talk to are gauging their welcome in the U.S.”

Sovern is one of the attorneys who offers free legal assessments to immigrants every Friday at Madison’s Community Immigration Law Center. Most of the people he sees are women and children. Many have been robbed and beaten up on their journey.

“The way people have been taken advantage of is horrific,” he says. “Everyone knows these people who are migrating have all of their life savings with them.” Children come with the phone number of a relative in the United States scrawled on their arms and are kidnapped. “People know they can call and get $5,000,” Sovern explains.

“No one coming here is thinking, ‘Oh, Biden’s great, I’m going.’ They’re just getting the Sam Hell out,” he adds. True, he says, the coyotes who make their living sneaking people across the border might be selling the idea that now is the time to go. “But they’ll say that any time,” says Sovern. 

Nor is Biden’s message to people fleeing violence in Central America, “Don’t come. … Don’t leave your town or city or community” going to make much difference to people whose immediate circumstances are absolutely dire.

“People can’t even articulate the things that go on,” says Sovern. “Terrible things.” A couple of clients of his firm whose cases he has worked on for years, were sold by their parents and then escaped conditions of slavery. “It’s mostly about human suffering,” he says. “So little of it is about politics.”

Erin Barbato, the director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the University of Wisconsin Law School, worries that Biden’s “Don’t come” message confuses things. “People who are seeking asylum don’t have time to wait,” she says.

Furthermore, she points out, letting unaccompanied minors into the United States is not actually a Biden administration policy. It’s the law, under the Refugee Act of 1980, that unaccompanied minors have a right to cross the U.S. border and seek asylum. Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s Homeland Security chief, has alluded to this. But he mixes it with tough talk about how the border is closed, and the point gets lost in news stories about Biden policy creating the unaccompanied minor “surge.”

Barbato works with second and third year law students to represent people who are facing deportation or are seeking asylum.

She and her students work with clients at the Dodge County Correctional Facility — the only immigrant detention center currently operating in Wisconsin. And they represent a number of families with children that were separated under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy.  

One of Barbato’s clients is a three-year-old girl who was separated from her mother for two months. 

The mother was fleeing domestic violence from her husband who was in the army in Guatemala. The little girl was taken at the border and while her mother was detained in the Port Isabel detention center in Texas, the child was sent to the Homestead Detention Center in Florida.

Reading the transcript of the mother’s credible fear interview — the first step in applying for asylum — broke Barbato’s heart.

“Normally, the asylum officer asks, ‘Why are you scared to return to your home country?’” she says. But the mother’s credible fear interview took place two days after immigration agents took her daughter. “The only thing she responds is, ‘I need to know where my daughter is. Where is my daughter?’ And then there are notes saying things like, ‘Can’t understand applicant — she’s crying.’”

This mother and child were finally reunited and brought to Madison, where Barbato and her students are trying to help them with their asylum claim. It’s a long shot, because cases based on gang threats and domestic violence have become harder to win.

“We’re going to continue to try,” says Barbato. “But every time I meet with this family, it’s just evident how they have a hard time trusting — trusting me, even — because of what our government did to them.”

With all of her family separation cases Barbato says she has to spend time building a rapport. She has to explain that she doesn’t work for the government and that her clients can trust her when she tells them that if they appear in court they won’t have their children snatched away.

The good news, according to both Sovern and Barbato, is that the Biden administration has significantly improved the process for getting unaccompanied minors together with their family members — and out of jail-like detention centers — as quickly as possible. 

“An unaccompanied kid comes, gets processed, and within a day or two is reunited with a family member here,” says Sovern. “They are getting calls to meet families. In fact, they are flying kids for free to meet them — which is unprecedented.”

“There are a few families who have contacted us who have gotten their children,” says Barbato. “Once their children are in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, they’re sending out documents right away to the parents or an uncle or a grandma who is here.”

The documents, Barbato adds, are “a lot less terrifying than they were” during the Trump administration. Relatives were afraid that they would be deported if they went to a detention center to pick up a child. The Biden administration, she says, is doing expedited background checks with the goal of getting kids out of detention as quickly as possible. There is still a certain amount of waiting as the government ensures that the children aren’t being trafficked into the United States. But it’s much better than it was.

There was a tremendous “a sigh of relief,” Barbato says, when Biden was elected, for her clients and for people who work with them.

She felt optimistic. “The Citizenship Act of 2021, to me, was such a breath of fresh air, because the policies and the laws that it proposed were really looking to heal the country, and to correct a lot of the inhumane laws that kept families separated.”

But in recent weeks, she has begun to worry. “I think the news has become so politicized that I am concerned that the positive movement towards more humane policies is going to be overshadowed by the fear mongering that’s going on.”

A new low came with the news that shooter who killed ten people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., was a Muslim refugee who came to the United States as a child from Syria.

Republicans immediately began calling him an “Obama refugee.” One of Barbato’s students, who is an immigrant from Iraq, called her, upset by the news and the way it was being spun.

“I get really worried that the momentum towards more humane policies is going to change,” she says.

Meanwhile, applications to the law school’s immigrant justice clinic are up. And students are more passionate than ever. That gives Barbato hope.

“People are really trying to participate in creating a more humane policy, and having a country that really does recognize human rights,” she says.

“These are people. They are children,” she says of the migrants she works with.

Somehow, we seem to be losing track of that.

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.