The Border Crisis: Many Causes, No Simple Solutions

Trying to make sense of a very complicated issue.


While international crises rage in Israel, Ukraine and Syria and domestic battles continue on other fronts, the story that has taken over the news cycle has been the crisis that has developed on America’s southern border, principally in Texas. Since the beginning of the year, but most especially in the last several months, the number of people arriving in this area has increased to such a degree that the ability of Federal and State authorities to deal with the situation logistically is being stretched to the breaking point. With very few places available in the immediate area to house the people arriving even temporarily, efforts have been made to move them into temporary housing elsewhere in the area, and indeed elsewhere in the country. Predictably, these moves have been met with protests and, even more predictably, the entire crisis has become wrapped up into the partisan battle that American politics has turned into.

On one side, Republicans, led in many respects by Texas Governor Rick Perry but also including members of the House and Senate GOP Caucuses, have sought to lay the blame for the entire crisis on President Obama and his policies in the area of immigration. According to this narrative, Administration polices such as 2012’s administrative moves to provide relief to the children of some illegal immigrants has led to the creation of the impression among Central Americans that if young people show up on the American border with Mexico, they will automatically be granted asylum under the law. Republican critics have also alleged that the crisis is rooted at least in part in the Administration’s supposed lax enforcement on the border, an assertion that seems to be belied by the record number of deportations under this President and the fact that the vast majority of these Central Americans are apparently presenting themselves at regular border crossings rather than trying to get across the border illegally. Some Republicans have even alleged that this entire crisis was somehow manufactured or encouraged by the White House in an effort to force Republicans to act on immigration reform. Most recently, many Republicans, and even some Democrats, are criticizing the President for failing to visit the border during a trip this week to Texas that includes two fundraisers in Dallas and Austin, an idea which the President rejected yesterday as a mere “photo op.”  Finally, Governor Perry and other political leaders are now calling on President Obama to authorize the use of National Guard troops to stem the tide of migrants and deal with the logistical problems that they have created.

On the Democratic side, the argument includes accusations that the crisis is somehow rooted in the failure of Congress to pass an immigration reform bill, although its worth noting that nothing in the bill passed by the Senate last year does not really contain any provisions that would directly deal with the current crisis. More on point, though, the President pointed out yesterday that the governments response to the influx of refugees is, to a large degree, dictated by a law that was passed in 2008 that places restrictions on what Federal authorities can do with people who arrive at America’s borders from nations either than Canada or Mexico. Under that law, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, unaccompanied minor children from one of these “noncontiguous nations” cannot simply be deported immediately the way a minor from Mexico or Canada can be. Instead, they must be taken into custody and processed through the immigration system to determine whether or not they are eligible for asylum under the U.S. law. Given the fact that the U.S. immigration hearing system is already incredibly backlogged, the odds that these determinations will be made quickly is exceedingly low, of course, and President Obama has responded to that by asking Congress to authorize as much as $4 billion in additional spending to deal with the immigration infrastructure issues that he contends are part of the problem. The President has also challenged Congress to amend the 2008 law to make deportation easier, however there is significant Democratic opposition to that idea that makes it unlikely that an effort to make such a change in the law would succeed. Additionally, it is important to note that not all of the migrants that are arriving in this current wave are unaccompanied minor children; many of them are families consisting of or one both parents with children or minors with adults that they may or may not be related to. Although the 2008 law doesn’t necessarily apply to these people, they have been caught up in the same humanitarian crisis and are essentially being processed

Putting aside all of the partisan bickering as best as possible, there have been several thoughts that have occurred to me about how we ought to handle this issue going forward.

First of all, I think it is important to separate the current crisis from both the issue of illegal immigration and illegal border crossings and the issue of comprehensive immigration reform. As I  noted above, the vast majority of these Central American migrants are presenting themselves at designated border crossings rather than crossing illegally. So, when conservatives try to equate what is happening now to the illegal border crossing issue and then blame the crisis on an alleged failure to control the border, they are conflating two largely unrelated issues. Similarly, I think its largely incorrect to try to tie this issue to the overall issue of immigration reform and place blame on Congress for failing to act in that area. It’s unclear that an immigration reform bill would have done anything to prevent what is happening now even if it had passed. At most, it would have provided the border control with some more resources to deal with the issues, but even the spending part of the Senate bill is something that would be rolled out over time, meaning that hiring new border agents is not something that would happen overnight. It’s inevitable, of course, that this current crisis would get tied up with the overall immigration debate, especially in an election year. However, doing so is likely going to make dealing with this issue far more difficult.

Second, it’s worth understanding why these people are risking everything, most especially their lives with a long trek northward through Mexico, in order to get to the United States on the chance that they might be able to stay. The nations they are coming from, which principally seem to include Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, are immensely poor, often politically unstable, and crime ridden thanks to the drug gangs that have taken hold in many parts of the area. For parents, it’s not surprising why someone would make the choice to undertake a dangerous journey for the promise of a better life when the alternatives include living in such conditions and, potentially, the prospect of their children essentially getting drafted into a gang whether they like it or not. In some sense, they are motivated by the same things that have motivated people to come to this country for hundreds of years. Given that, it strikes me that perhaps we ought to be a little more charitable in our views about how to deal with these migrants.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there was a time when we welcomed those people, now they are met with protests in cities like Murietta, California, and the near universal assumption in Washington that we simply ought to return all of them to their country of origin. Obviously, not everyone coming in this current wave of migrants can or should be allowed to stay, but neither is it the case that all of them should be forced to return. In the past, people motivated by the same desires as these migrants were allowed to enter the country to begin new lives and, while it was not easy and integration into American society was often a long and difficult process, that immigration has always been a net benefit to our country. More importantly, sympathy toward refuges, whether they are motivated by political, safety, or economic concerns strike me as something that is just the right thing to do. The extent to which people, mostly on the political right have been outright hostile to these people is, quite frankly, highly disturbing. Aren’t these the same sort of “huddled masses” that we used to welcome into the country?

The biggest question, of course, is what can and should be done about the current crisis. Ideally, the solution would be to stem the tide at the source but as long as conditions in these nations are in the state they are in now, people are going to be motivated to find a way out and toward a better life no matter how tight “border security” happens to be. Some issues, such as a the backlogged immigration hearing system and the issue of people who are given court dates that they never show up for, can only realistically be dealt with by providing Immigration and Customs Enforcement with the additional resources they need to handle the volume of hearings involved, which was high long before these people started showing up in Texas. That, of course, requires Congress to act. Additionally, there likely ought to be changes to the 2008 law mentioned above that would streamline the process of dealing with these types of migrants, most especially the ones that clearly do no have legitimate asylum claims.  Finally, yes, I agree with the President that Congress ought to act on comprehensive immigration reform; however, the prospect that this is going to happen before the midterm elections is essentially zero.  Most of all, it seems important to understand that the influx of refuges that we are dealing with right now is motivated by factors that aren’t necessarily under our control. At some point, the most we can do is deal with these people withing the boundaries of the law, and with the kind of human decency and respect that seems to be sadly lacking in some people when it comes to this issue.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    I’m sorry, but I still don’t believe this current crisis is an immigration issue but a refugee issue. These children are trying to escape an environment where the possibility of their being murdered is very high. We took in 1,000s of Cubans and 10s of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodians after the the disastrous mis-adventure in SE East Asia. And yes, the US is in part responsible. Our totally failed “war on drugs” is in part responsible but so is our totally misguided foreign policy for decades.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I think sitting round trying to figure out Who Shot John is a waste of time. It’s a sucker’s game. There doesn’t need to be a single reason that the kids are coming here. The fact is that they’re coming here and we need to deal with them appropriately.

    The first thng we need to do is change the law. Under existing law unaccompanied minors are to be treated as refugees. The reality is that RORing these kids and telling them to come back someday for an immigration hearing is no more responsible than putting them on the tops of railroad cars heading north.

    Concurrently, we need to provide for their immediate needs for shelter, clothing, food, etc.

    IMO the real solution in the best interests of the kids is returning them to their countries of origin, paying those countries to create safe havens for them if necessary. $3.7 billion is a lot of money and not enough of the dough is earmarked for that purpose (about 20% of it is).

  3. Tillman says:

    @Ron Beasley: Even if we could parse it as a refugee crisis, you’d still need to somehow wrangle more funding out of Congress. That doesn’t seem likely unless Perry or another Republican starts making waves about it. (Democrats always want more funding after all.)

  4. Cletus says:

    I’m pissed off that I’ve been paying $20 a month to Save the children in Guatemala the last three years and apparently the program hasn’t been helping. But there’s no easy answers here. We need real leadership here and a solution that will hopefully be bipartisan. I don’t have the answer but hope someone deals with this before it gets really bad.

  5. @Ron Beasley:

    As I note above, I’m sympathetic to the refugee argument, but I’m not sure that i can or should be applied to all of these people. Ultimately, we cannot take in everyone who comes here like this, although we must admittedly do our best to treat them in a humane manner in any case.

    @Dave Schuler:

    IMO the real solution in the best interests of the kids is returning them to their countries of origin, paying those countries to create safe havens for them if necessary. $3.7 billion is a lot of money and not enough of the dough is earmarked for that purpose (about 20% of it is).

    Preventing the flow of migrants is certainly the best option. Obviously, convincing Congress to authorize that kind of foreign aid is probably not a politically viable option.

  6. Matt Bernius says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    IMO the real solution in the best interests of the kids is returning them to their countries of origin, paying those countries to create safe havens for them if necessary. $3.7 billion is a lot of money and not enough of the dough is earmarked for that purpose (about 20% of it is).

    Completely correct, and completely politically untenable.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The problem with treating them as refugees is that they’re kids and it doesn’t solve anything.

    If you’re going to treat them as refugees, there are just three choices: you can ROR them, you can hand them over to relatives whom we have no ability to verify, or we can institutionalize them. IMO those are all just as dangerous as the situations they’re fleeing. Even more so, maybe. We’re better armed up here.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    There is a paucity of really good, politically possible solutions. Some times you’ve got to swallow, hold your nose, and do the right thing.

  9. @Dave Schuler:

    Agreed, which is why I don’t think we need to start referring to them as “refugees” like some people are trying to do, not the least because doing so potentially places in motion obligations under treaties that we’ve entered into that would make the problem even worse than it already is.

    At the same time, I’m not sure that complete repatriation is the best option either, at least not immediately. Even the best assistance programs to Central America will take time to have any impact and, in the meantime, the forces that are motivating people to make this journey will remain in place.

  10. Matt Bernius says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    There is a paucity of really good, politically possible solutions. Some times you’ve got to swallow, hold your nose, and do the right thing.

    Completely correct. The sad part is that currently, even if a majority of Congress was prepared to hold their noses, a strong enough minority exists to block any forward motion on this subject.

    That AND the fact that this is an election year, make even implementing the “worst-ok” solution seem unlikely.

  11. John425 says:

    Overlooked is the notion that the cartels and coyotes are moving these thousands of children to our borders and creating this crisis. Why does this administration, or any other administration, cede American foreign policy to these people? I thought America was responsible for it’s own foreign policy. Instead, we are letting others dictate it to us. Mexico and Central America have had drugs and gang violence for decades. The only reason for the upsurge in illegal immigration is that this administration has given the appearance that it will do nothing and look the other way.
    The billions that Obama is now asking for to deal with the upsurge amounts to $60,000 per illegal child. If Obama is truly acting as a humanitarian then why doesn’t he just give each of these kids the $60K and then ship them the f**k back home.

    But…in typical Obama fashion, he’s waaaay behind the curve on this issue just as he has been in every foreign policy issue.

  12. Ron Beasley says:

    @Cletus: I quit giving money to those organizations several years ago.

  13. C. Clavin says:

    It’s a complex world and there are rarely simple solutions to it’s complex problems.
    But fer christsake you need to take a first step if you are ever going to get somewhere.
    Cowering in your air conditioned office and drawing $175K a year to do nothing isn’t a solution…it’s John Boehner’s job description.
    I remember when Republicans had some balls. Wait. Maybe I don’t. Cheney hid in a bunker before he ordered the CIA to start torturing people didn’t he. Never mind.

  14. PD Shaw says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    “Then anyone can come in, and it means that, effectively, we don’t have any kind of system,” Obama said. “We are a nation with borders that must be enforced.”

  15. Tyrell says:

    For starters they are going to have to stop these people from from entering, period. We are seeing busloads . I don’t know how a bus can just get through the border. Towns are over crowded with them and do not have the facilities and support to handle them. The citizens are finally saying no, that is enough, no more. While our leaders do nothing. And many in the news media are more concerned about not calling them “illegals”.

  16. Neil Hudelson says:



  17. Neil Hudelson says:


    Save the Children focuses on reducing child (especially infant) mortality, and improving education equality. They wouldn’t have anything to do with things like drug cartels, political unrest, etc., that’s causing this crisis. So don’t stop donating to a good cause because of a situation that’s out of their control and outside the mission of their organization.

    @Ron Beasley:

    Why? From a professional standpoint, I have problems with some of Save the Children’s fundraising tactics, but they have a low overhead, spend most of their money on program costs, and have a decent reputation as an NGO. Is there any compelling reason to not donate to them, other than they don’t match your philanthropic priorities?

  18. Cletus says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    I was just kidding about Save Children. I’m happy to continue to support it. I get letters, pictures and notes each month and they actually tell you a bit about how your moneys spent. I don’t hold them anyway responsible for this mess and they probably could use more money these days.
    20 a month is a very small price to pay. I just hope the boy I sponsor is ok and not stuck at the border.

  19. DrDaveT says:

    They’re clearly refugees when they leave Honduras. I’m less clear on why I’m supposed to still think of them as refugees when they eventually get to the far side of Mexico and cross into the US. They aren’t fleeing violence and chaos in Mexico; they’re just looking for a better gig.

    I understand that making them Mexico’s problem does not solve the humanitarian problem, and I’m open to suggestions about that. But they are not, when they get here, our, refugees.

  20. Dave D says:

    Ron mentioned it but the core problem is the prohibition on drugs, that empowers these cartels. Ideally any plan should legalize at least cocaine and marijuana to break the power of these cartels and deprive them of their main source of cash. But I’m sure HSBC, BOA and JP Morgan are all lobbying against that as they have been caught laundering cartel money. Additionally any humanitarian aid should be distributed through the UN and credible NGO’s to ensure that it gets to where it needs to go and isn’t squandered by corrupt governments. This is a multi-issue problem but education, infrastructure development and foreign investment are likely the only way to solve this. It is a real shame Washington completely stopped focusing on solving anything long term. It is our faults we want immediate results and have the attention span of goldfish so long standing problems are forgotten for the new shiny problem of the day. Isn’t that what NAFTA was supposed to be argued as doing strengthening our neighbors to benefit ourselves?

  21. bill says:

    @Ron Beasley: true, but we can’t solve the worlds problems by opening the gates and letting them all in. people have to govern their countries to some extent- America isn’t a dumping ground for the worlds lost children, unfortunately. and the current administrations blatant contempt of any border states ability to enforce existing laws was just an invitation to them. ironically it’s california that’s all up in arms with protests, and Texas is helping the kids. oh, obama stopped by for a few fundraisers…….not to visit the border where all this clusterfuk is happening. but what else does a lame duck do anyway?

  22. Andre Kenji says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    IMO the real solution in the best interests of the kids is returning them to their countries of origin, paying those countries to create safe havens for them if necessary.

    That´s not so simple. The real problem are the drug cartels, not poverty. Dealing with these cartels is really difficult because they have access to large amounts of money – the so called “pacification” of favelas in Rio is simply forcing the drug gangs to move to somewhere else. By the way, Central America and Mexico are facing problems with the Drug Cartels precisely because there was relatively success with the cartels in Colombia.

  23. anjin-san says:

    @ John 425

    Mexico and Central America have had drugs and gang violence for decades.

    Yes, and much of that is attributable to America’s endless appetite for drugs and its counterpart, the war on drugs.

  24. Andre Kenji says:


    They aren’t fleeing violence and chaos in Mexico; they’re just looking for a better gig.

    Undocumented workers flee to the United States because it´s the only country in the American Continent where you can work or have access to government services without documentation. In Mexico, without a identification document you can´t find work nor have access to government services.

  25. Ron Beasley says:

    @bill: I agree with you on marijuana but mot cocaine although cocoa leaves might be OK. In fact anything you can grow might be OK.

  26. DrDaveT says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    Undocumented workers flee to the United States because it´s the only country in the American Continent where you can work or have access to government services without documentation.

    Like I said, a better gig.

  27. Grewgills says:

    How would Obama visiting the border help?

  28. Todd says:


    America isn’t a dumping ground for the worlds lost children, unfortunately.

    For those of us of European ancestry, our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents may have come here for that very reason. Here’s the poem from the Statue of Liberty:

    “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

    Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
    A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
    Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
    From her beacon-hand
    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
    “”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”” cries she
    With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

    If/when the jingoistic nativists ever succeed in convincing those poor huddled masses that it’s not worth even trying to come to America, that is when we will cease to be a great nation.

  29. Tyrell says:

    @Andre Kenji: Then there’ s the solution! Congress and President Obama need to adopt that as part of their immigration reform act. I think everyone could agree on that.

  30. beth says:

    @Tyrell: I wouldn’t hold my breath on that. Both parties depend on the sweet corporate money flowing in and corporate America loves the cheap, undocumented labor. And I believe the idea of a national ID card has been struck down repeatedly by the black helicopters crowd when it comes to voting ID, why would it be any different for working?

  31. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    @Todd: Of course the bloody French would try to put something like this up. It’s time for all right-thinking Americans to unite and send that bit of un-American propaganda back to where it belongs.

  32. Dave D says:

    @Ron Beasley: If marijuana is the only thing legalized it will not break the power of these cartels which produce mountains of cocaine to feed the drug habits of Americans and Western Europeans. People are already doing these things in such quantities that it basically destroys multiple countries in the region, why not just let adults be adults. Portugal legalized everything and it seems to be the same as ever there.

  33. Todd says:

    @Ebenezer_Arvigenius: Ahh, so the 1880s French were part of Obama’s conspiracy to turn us into a 3rd world country? 😉

  34. Andre Kenji says:


    Congress and President Obama need to adopt that as part of their immigration reform act.

    That´s not so simple. Latin America is known for it´s red tape, and curbing illegal immigration in the US would mean increasing bureaucracy in all levels. the simple idea of a national ID has lots of implications, including for gun ownership.

  35. Grewgills says:

    Exactly, now the scales have fallen from your eyes and you can see the truth clearly.

  36. Tyrell says:

    @Andre Kenji: One thing that they could do is turn the buses around and not stop until they get about 800 miles south of the border.

  37. bill says:

    @Grewgills: it wouldn’t, the point is that he was in Texas to gather up some funds for whatever and yahoo/reuters ran a story on him being “at the border” (which they pulled quickly when they were called out on it). he encouraged this mess and has nothing to do with it now, aside from wanting to throw money at it.
    @Todd: yeah, i’m getting all weepy now- seen it before and it had it’s time. how come canadians aren’t flocking here for freebies? and why won’t our unemployed do the work that they will, it’s not that bad?

  38. Todd says:

    @bill: Here’s the difference between Conservatives and normal compassionate human beings … when I see pictures of those kids at the border, all I can think of is how scared they much be, and how truly dire their situation must have been back home for their parents to have sent them on such a dangerous journey. From my interactions with most Conservatives, their first thought seems to be something along the lines of “oh great what how much is this going to cost?”

    Some (actually many) things are more important than money.

  39. Grewgills says:

    If it wouldn’t help, why do you care that he didn’t go?
    and you obviously do care or you wouldn’t have brought it up

  40. Tyrell says:

    Members of the Senate and House do not have to wait on the President. They have the power to pass legislation. Short action is needed now: to stop the flow of the thousands coming over daily, turn the buses around, load up a fleet of C130’s and make stops, leaving these people back with their parents and wherever they came from, put the National Guard down there to help as needed, send as much help as needed (send a committee down there to see exactly what is going on and what must be done now). Send the legislation to the President . If he vetoes it, discussion over.Any long term solutions won’t get done until after the elections. Our leaders need to put their heads together and work on the problem. Get in a room with lots of food, drinks, and cigars. They will have a plan in hours. Drop the grandstanding, use some common sense, and get ‘er done! That is the way things used to get done up there. That is the way businesses get things done.Even the Supreme Court could help out with some of the legal aspects. When I see volunteers and church groups helping out strangers, then our leaders can pitch in too.
    One other thing. Any one who comes in covered face and body in gang type tattoos needs to be sent back post haste. That’s trouble if there ever was.
    I am not advocating ignoring medical needs of these people. Certainly they need to be treated. But some of these towns do not have the personnel and facilities to handle thousands of people. From what I have seen a lot of people and groups have pitched in and are helping in the small towns.
    While we are on this, there is a US Marine locked up in some Mexican dirtbag jail: for making a wrong turn. The President could make one phone call and he would be out.
    Something is wrong with this whole picture. Someone should have seen this coming.