BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week marked the first days of spring and for the weekend news shows that meant returning to one particular perennial refrain.
NEWS REPORT And now on to a story, a crisis that not only is not going away, but that is gaining steam, and that is the crisis on the southern border. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE A crisis, a crescendo that only seemed to get louder as the week wore on.
NEWS REPORT The border right now is wide open because the Biden administration dismantled the very effective policies of the Trump administration and the agreements we had with Mexico and other Latin American countries. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT This is a full-blown crisis. It is a national security crisis. It is a health and safety for you and your family crisis. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE For weeks, the White House steered clear of the rhetoric. Opting for words like "challenge" and "circumstance" and "situation," but eventually, even they got caught in the narrative trap.
NEWS REPORT Jen Psaki slips up, calling the border surge a crisis. This as reporters claim President Biden taking a page out of the Trump playbook and turning to Mexico to stem the flow. [END CLIP].
BROOKE GLADSTONE So who's right? Is there a crisis? A surge, a flow of people at historic levels? If it feels like we've asked these questions before, it's because we have. President after president, administration after administration, has faced the southern border as a particularly complex problem. A problem that no one seems to know how to fix.
NEWS REPORT The challenges are permanent and complex. There will never be a president in your lifetime who doesn't face the challenge of how to combine enforcement with compassion and humanity, especially when it comes to children at our southern borders. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's a tightrope few presidents seem to be able to walk or evade, but Tom K Wong, associate professor and the founding director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the University of California at San Diego, says that what we're seeing at the border is predictable, and the solution to our problem lies in understanding the data.
TOM K WONG What we see thus far in 2021, when we look at Customs and Border Protection's own data are trends that fit previous years in terms of the seasonality of the migratory crossings at the southern border. We typically see an increase from January that runs until about May. This is attributable to the weather as winter ends, and people being more likely to take the dangerous migratory trek north. And so what we're seeing is not unpredictable if we pay attention to the seasonality of southern border statistics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The word crisis was applied to Trump's administration with regard to the border, also to the Obama administration. It seems like there wasn't as much attention during the George W. Bush administration. Were they all crises, or not crises in the same way because it was just seasonality?
TOM K WONG Let's use an analogy. When we think about retailers, we typically see an increase in sales from November to December because of the holiday shopping season. Retailers may jump for joy if sales skyrocket relative to the same period in previous years. But right now we're not really seeing much difference in terms of the trends in the data. Right now, we have January to February of fiscal year 2021, the freshest data from Customs and Border Protection, publicly available. The increase this year is 28 percent. In 2019 it was 31 percent for the same period. We looked at data going back to 2012, all of the publicly available data from Customs and Border Protection. Do the data themselves speak to crisis? I would say no. But are there real challenges at the border? Yes, absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That percentage may be lower than 2019, but the number of migrants, at least according to the latest data you have, is higher.
TOM K WONG There are multiple things that are simultaneously true. The trend is very similar to previous years, explained by the seasonality of the data. But in fiscal year 2021, what we're seeing are overall higher levels.
BROOKE GLADSTONE By level you mean real number.
TOM K WONG The total number, yes
BROOKE GLADSTONE And it's higher, why?
TOM K WONG What we see for fiscal year 2021 is neatly predicted by a resumption of fiscal year 2019 levels, plus the pent-up demand from 2020.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There was a decrease in 2020 because of the pandemic?
TOM K WONG Yes, there was a noticeable decrease. The fiscal year, 2021 numbers are the resumption of fiscal year 2019 and the difference, the drop off that we saw between fiscal year 2019 and fiscal year 2020.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You don't see a role for Biden's rhetoric, his expressions of empathy or anything like that for this increase in numbers?
TOM K WONG What we do see is an increase in unaccompanied minors, something that is not easily predicted by the seasonality. Some have used the crisis narrative to pin the increase in unaccompanied minors to Biden administration immigration policies. I don't think we have enough data to make that determination yet, but we are actually guided by decades of research that tracks how human smugglers exploit changes in administrations. Human smuggling is a multibillion-dollar industry and the change in administration itself, it could have been Trump to Biden, it could have been Trump to anybody but Trump. That gave smugglers an opportunity to further incentivize the use of their services by promising parents that now is the time for your children to make it into the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So there are seasonal trends and then there are hard numbers, annual levels. But what are we missing in the narratives?
TOM K WONG Looking at month to month changes paints only part of the portrait. But if there is seasonality in the data, that means the federal government can, every season there is an increase, better prepare. And if we can better prepare, then hopefully the images of kids in cages will be a remnant of our immigration policy past.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But we have data now, you said going back to 2012, why do we have kids still in cages?
TOM K WONG I think that is a question for past administrations as well as the current Biden administration to answer. Academics like myself have contributed to the messiness in how we interpret southern border statistics, in part because we talk in terms of things like trend changes versus level changes, but I think we are actually having a much more nuanced conversation about the data now than at any point in my career thus far.
BIDEN It happens every single solitary year. There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March. It happens every year. [END CLIP]
TOM K WONG And I think that is a step in the right direction. Whether or not policymakers respond by better preparing, that is to be determined.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Actually, though, has there ever been a time that you can recall when the border worked relatively well?
TOM K WONG This is going to be, I know for some a counterintuitive answer and for others it will make them downright angry. There was a period where the southern border did not look like it currently looks. In 1996, under the Clinton administration, there was Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego sector of the Border Patrol. Operation Gatekeeper erected the modern physical infrastructure that separates Mexico from the United States. Prior to Operation Gatekeeper, migration was mostly circular. People would come to the US work and then return to their home countries like Mexico to be with their families. And that pattern of circular migration is what kept the number of undocumented immigrants who lived in the US permanently relatively low, but with the erection of physical barriers that started with Operation Gatekeeper and has run through to the Trump administration and its southern border wall. That made a crossing that much more difficult, which meant that those who may otherwise have returned home stayed in the US permanently for fear of not being able to go home and then get back into the US.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So fewer physical barriers and impediments actually keeps the numbers down.
TOM K WONG Yes, physical impediments to movement do not change the underlying reasons why people want to migrate. Whether it be to provide for their families or like what we're seeing with Central American migrants today to find protection from persecution. Walls do not change those underlying motives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You get displacement instead of deterrence.
TOM K WONG Deterrence policies at the southern border do not deter, but either displace to more treacherous migratory routes, delay migratory decisions, or incentivize the use of human smugglers. Those deterrence policies, when they incentivize the use of human smugglers, actually increases the probability that an undocumented immigrant successfully enters the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK, here's a long question, and I'll start with Biden on Thursday.
BIDEN Does anybody suggest that there was a 31 percent increase under Trump because he was a nice guy and he was doing good things at the border? That's not the reason they're coming.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Kids in cages. Was the outcry in the Trump era, now we confront Biden's challenges and there seems to be less outrage on the part of the mainstream media, and I'm sure this is in part because of the expressed intention of this White House. This president is oriented rhetorically and his policies around alleviating distress, whereas Trump wanted to use it as a migrant repellent. So Biden is covered with that expressed empathy in mind, at least at first, but then that coverage in the mainstream media is swiftly followed by a reflex to do more, quote, "evenhanded coverage," even though the policies nor the politicians were in any way equivalent. You say that Biden's rhetoric didn't significantly change the numbers, though it may have changed the number of unaccompanied minors to a degree that we don't have data for. Do you think intentions matter or has the administration, which has kids in the equivalents of cages, already failed?
TOM K WONG I think intentions do matter, but I'll start by saying that we as a country should be able to do better when it comes to providing protection from persecution. But when it comes to the difference in coverage, I would only ask listeners to think about how the Trump administration used crisis to justify harsher policies. Here under the Biden administration, no doubt there are challenges in terms of processing unaccompanied minors, but to the extent that it amounts to a crisis that therefore justifies harsher policies, I don't see that in the data. I also don't see that in the Biden administration's attempts to improve processing of unaccompanied minors so that less time is spent in detention-like facilities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But what about a crisis not defined in numbers, but in conditions?
TOM K WONG Oh, great question. Images of unaccompanied minors have made recent headlines. We should hold the Biden administration to account for conditions just like we were outraged when we saw the images and then heard the stories of how unaccompanied minors were being treated by the Trump administration. I don't think any administration gets a pass for mistreating people who are seeking asylum.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tom, thank you very much.
TOM K WONG Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tom K Wang is an associate professor and the founding director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the University of California at San Diego.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, bad influence on the Internet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
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