Over the Borderline: Part Two.

The Politics of Migration.

A group of migrants lined up at the border. Image Description: A group of migrants lined up at the border.

Summary: In today’s episode, we head to the border and below to examine the root causes and circumstances that factor into immigration patterns, from economic opportunity to asylum. Max speaks with Maureen Meyer from The Washington Office on Latin America, known as WOLA, a D.C. based organization that advocates for human rights in the Americas. Meyer serves as WOLA’s Vice President for Programs, working with senior staff to develop policy priorities and strategies to advance human rights and social justice in Latin America. We’re still following the blended episodic and Phone A Friend approach for this series, so Max begins with a brief discussion about the complex nature of immigration policy and the historical relationship between the United States and Latin America.

Welcome to Part Two in our series, “Over the Borderline.” In Part One we spoke with Marlene Galaz from the New York Immigration Coalition about the influx of migrants into New York City and the pressure it has placed on city agencies. In today’s episode, we head to the border and below to examine the root causes and circumstances that factor into immigration patterns, from economic opportunity to asylum. Max speaks with Maureen Meyer from The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a D.C. based organization that advocates for human rights in the Americas. Meyer serves as WOLA’s Vice President for Programs, working with senior staff to develop policy priorities and strategies to advance human rights and social justice in Latin America.

“They’re sending prisoners, murderers, drug dealers, mental patients and terrorists—the worst they have in every country. All over the world, this isn’t just in South America, they’re coming from the Congo, from Yemen, from Somalia, from Syria, they come from all over the world. China. They, many of them, are military age, which is a very strange. You don’t see very many women coming in and you see a lot of them coming in they’re about 19 to 25, 26 years old and especially from China, we have 29,000 over the last few months, 29,000 from China and they all seem to be uh perfectly fit for military service. Ready for military service. It’s crazy. This is country-changing. It’s country-threatening and it’s country-wrecking. They have wrecked our country.”
-Former President Donald Trump

I recently listened to WNYC’s new feature Suds and Civics where the host talks politics with New Yorkers in laundromats to find out what’s on people’s minds. They were talking about immigration and the two people they interviewed perfectly encapsulated the complexity of this issue and their conversations serve as a useful bridge from our first episode that centered on New York City.

The first conversation was with a Colombian woman who migrated several years ago to the U.S. In Spanish she expressed her admiration for Donald Trump and said there were too many new people trying to get into the U.S. The next interview was with a Salvadoran woman who lamented the way that migrants were denigrated in the national media.

Immigrants aren’t monolithic. And neither are the countries they come from. From economic policies and political parties to the individuals and families they impact, it’s impossible and irresponsible to reduce the immigration narrative to bumper sticker terms like “open borders,” “migrant crime” and “catch and release.”

For example, here’s a twist most people probably haven’t considered. A former White House economist named Ernie Tedeschi published a report recently that found the post-pandemic influx of immigration responsible for at least 20% of the increase in U.S. GDP. But wait, it gets better. Another Brookings report claims that the surge in migrant workers helped close the hiring gap, which in turn likely helped suppress inflationary pressures. Essentially, more people filling low wage jobs and curtailing the need to increase wages. Taken together, these economists are essentially saying that one of the key reasons we have outperformed the entire world in terms of reining in inflation and growing GDP figures is the increase in immigration.

There’s a lot to unpack there. There’s also a lot for both sides of the political aisle to like and hate about these proclamations. I mean, if you’re a Republican you hate that immigrants are contributing to growth but you have to love the access to cheap labor domestically. Dirty little secret time. If you’re a Democrat it’s the ultimate double edged sword. On the one hand, the Biden administration looks completely disorganized on border policy and that’s biting them in the ass right now. On the other hand, if immigrant workers are helping to cool inflation and lead to a faster recovery then…well…Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s not like Biden can take to the podium and say, “I know they’re undocumented but at least you get to abuse their labor and they spread their low wages around on consumer products.” It’s a bad look all around.

This is just one of the complicating factors the major political parties are running up against or running with, depending upon the strategy to win the election. In any normal off-election year, the volume of migrant activity would be of grave concern. It’s unmanageable in the best of circumstances and we haven’t exactly created anything remotely close to the best circumstances. In fact, our immigration policy is so fundamentally flawed it’s hard to envision anything but a complete reimagining of the process having any sort of impact.

But in typical American fashion, we only focus on the optics and the obvious. Of course, there’s a much bigger part of this story and that’s the stories of the migrants themselves and the countries they’re fleeing. Sure, there are passing references to root causes of migration and some news outlets will go the extra mile to contextualize what’s occurring below the southern border. But inevitably the more regional and immediate sensationalism wins the prime slot at the top of the hour.

This may come as a surprise, but the people coming across the border are coming from countries that have been around for a long time. Real places with their own economies, political economies, cultures, traditions and values. And they’re not coming here because the streets are fucking paved with gold. Sure, some are coming for opportunistic reasons to better their financial circumstances. But many are coming to be with family. Or they’re fleeing persecution, environmental disasters, political instability or life threatening danger. Every asylum seeker, every migrant worker, every family, every individual has a story. And every country of origin does as well.

Moreover, the United States isn’t always the end game. Sometimes it’s a stop on a journey. Perhaps they were turned away from their first choice. There are countries in Latin America that have a much larger surge in immigration for all the same reasons. But it’s not like us to look past ourselves to ask what’s happening in other places. And that’s fair. That’s human nature, and certainly American nature. So this isn’t an attempt to chastise or criticize our collective myopia on this issue. It’s an attempt to contextualize the issue so that we can take a wider and clearer view of the root causes of immigration and better position ourselves to find solutions and restore some balance to the conversation.

Re-Humanizing the Dehumanized

Isolating immigration to simply a border crisis story robs us the ability to view the tributaries that flow from it. Scratch the surface and you’ll get to political and economic policies that have a broad impact. Ours and those of our neighbors and partners.

  • Climate change. Neoliberal economic policies. Affordable housing shortages.
  • Labor and taxes. Human trafficking. Exploitation and wage theft.
  • Welfare and criminal justice reform. Foreign policy. Trade agreements.
  • Industrialization, mining, fossil fuel extraction, agriculture, deforestation.
  • Drug cartels and criminal syndicates.

The list goes on and on but at its core, immigration is a human story. Why would someone risk life and limb to uproot themselves or their families to take part in a wholly unfamiliar culture? Ask yourself what could happen in your life that would prompt you to leave behind all that you’ve ever known—language, music, culture, work, loved ones, the food you love and the streets you know. The answer is likely found in the multitude of life altering issues we listed above. Maybe one of them, perhaps a confluence.

To understand the nature of migration, it’s important to use a shared language. To level set on definitions and a little history. The goal today is to set the table from a political and policy perspective. Then, in the third installment, we’ll talk about economic trends and models that undergird the larger narrative.

In a way, we’re working backwards from our New York City immigration episode and how an influx of migrants challenged a proud sanctuary city and brought what is typically considered a border story to the streets of the most famous city in the world. A situation that pit governors and states against one another and forced the gateway to the New World, proud home to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, to confront uncomfortable realities. Realities that bent social services but didn’t buckle them. Realities that have tested the moral and ethical resolve of one of the most diverse communities on the planet, but haven’t broken its spirit.

So let’s level-set with a little Q&A.

Where are people coming from?

The largest inflow to the United States through ports of entry as reported by the Customs and Border Protection agency, or CBP, remains Mexico. In 2023, the number of encounters (we’ll talk about that in a moment) with Mexican immigrants was 717,000. That close to, but still greater than, the total number of encounters from what’s referred to as the “Northern Triangle” in Central America—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

A handful of others for context we have Venezuela at 266,000, Colombia at 160,000, Cuba at a surprising 142,000, Nicaragua 99,000, and Haiti and Peru each with 76,000. Other countries made up about 389,000 for a total of 2.4 million “encounters.”

Migrants' Countries of Origin by share of total encounters. All countries- 2,476,000. Mexico- 717,000. Venezuela- 266,000. Guatemala- 220,000. Honduras- 214,000. Colombia- 160,000. Cuba- 142,000. Ecuador- 116,000. Nicaragua- 99,000. Haiti- 76,000. Peru- 76,000. Other- 389,000.

Importantly, the term “encounters” is a little opaque. And I don’t want to get lost in the weeds here, but it’s important to briefly explore what this means. These are people who have a documented interaction with border patrol. Hold that thought. There is obviously another subset of migrants that evade authorities and do not self report at the border. Now, liberal media likes to overlook this while it’s all conservative media tends to harp on. But because we have robust census data, boots on the ground with agencies that service undocumented people, and technology to track movement, we know that the percentage of purely illegal crossings are far lower than these so-called encounters.

Another aspect of the counting here is that there are those who make multiple attempts for a variety of reasons, which we dig into a bit more in our interview today. And this is on top of what officials estimate is somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 million undocumented people living in the United States in some state of citizenship limbo.

How do we have so much information on border crossings?

This is actually an interesting question that itself dismantles some of the primary talking points about the crisis. If you casually digest mainstream media, it’s easy to come away with the impression that waves of humanity have toppled fences and are storming the country with guns, knives and bats and have ill intent toward us.

That would be the white American patriots on January 6.

Look, this happens in certain areas. There are people undertaking incredibly dangerous journeys to cross the border illegally and undetected. But again, we have a lot more information from census data and technology that paints a slightly different picture. The vast majority of migrants are presenting themselves to border patrol agents and applying for asylum.

What’s different today is that they register through what’s called the CBP One app, which has a website companion immigrants can use to register with the federal government. According to the Immigration Council, “CBP One users must provide email addresses, create passwords, and—in some cases—enter phone numbers to create their Login.gov accounts. Once users have created their Login.gov profiles, they can enter information into the app and access its different functions based on each user’s particular needs.”

The rollout of the app went as smoothly as Obama’s healthcare exchange rollout. And that’s the least problematic part of the program, which we’ll get into later. But this is how we have so much data and information on asylum seekers, their whereabouts and application status. The important takeaway here is that most people aren’t trying to hide from the government or sneak across the border. In other words, they’re following the legal pathway of migration. The whole notion of illegal immigration is a tired trope. The United States is an asylum nation with very specific rules and decades of precedent that most immigrants are abiding by. So when you’re in a discussion with someone who says, “I don’t mind immigrants, I just think they should come here legally,” that’s what they’re doing.

How does Title 42 explain the difference between Trump and Biden’s approach to the border?

Title 42 is an old provision dating back to 1944 that allows the government to expel someone who had recently been to a country where there was a communicable disease outbreak or concern. The Trump administration enacted it at the start of the pandemic, which seriously curtailed the number of people entering the country. It remained in force in the first two years of the Biden administration even as COVID testing became available at the border, but enforcement was gradually eased on a case by case basis. For example, Biden crafted an exclusion to Title 42 for Ukranians seeking asylum at the beginning of the Russian war on Ukraine.

Alternately, Biden also weaponized Title 42 to expel Venezuelans to Mexico for a brief period, though he was heavily criticized for it. The provision was lifted in May of 2023 around the time that CBP One was publicly released. The confluence of a shaky app rollout, the lifting of Title 42 and a worsening of the situation in Venezuela caused the unprecedented surge in asylum seekers in 2023 that put border towns and the Biden administration in a tight spot. According to Human Rights Watch, “Over 440,000 Venezuelans crossed the Darién Gap between January 2022 and October 2023.”

According to the Migration Policy Institute, the post-Title 42 era has significantly altered the reality on the ground.

“In lifting the Title 42 public health order that permitted nearly 3 million expulsions over slightly more than three years, the administration issued an innovative set of policies seeking to discourage irregular crossings and encourage scheduled entries at ports of entry, using the CBP One app to schedule an appointment. This carrot-and-stick approach, which includes a rule that presumes people ineligible for asylum if they cross the border illegally, is part of a new chapter in border enforcement: A strategy to disincentivize irregular crossings while incentivizing orderly arrivals by creating or expanding access to legal pathways. These pathways include new and expanded immigration parole programs for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans, permitting temporary stays in the United States and access to work authorization for more than 240,000 people to date. Applicants must have a U.S. sponsor and apply outside of the country for authorization to present themselves at a port of entry in the U.S. interior.”

We’ll talk more about this in our interview with Maureen Meyer from WOLA, but I find it fascinating how little of this context makes it into the public discourse. Like so many other Biden initiatives, there is a ton of movement on policy and people who are extremely committed to trying, failing and adjusting but the numbers bely the effort. And perhaps so much so that it will contribute to Biden’s undoing in November.

Below the Borderline

Before we dig into our discussion with Maureen, I think it’s important to speak briefly to what’s happening in the countries of origin. We’ll unpack some historical “whys” and “wherefores” in the next episode, particularly from an economic and trade perspective, but from a purely political standpoint it takes two to tango.

The political factors that shape migration decisions in Venezuela are wholly separate from the countries that comprise the Northern Triangle. And even within those three nations, there are vastly different political circumstances. We’ve spoken about Bukele at length already and how his heavy handed war on local gangs has severely curtailed the number of people looking to flee the country. But is all what it seems? The Bukele effect has spread to South America with President Noboa of Ecuador taking a page out of Bukele’s book. There’s a terrific piece in the Baffler that describes the Ecuadorian predicament that led Noboa down this path.

“Between 2009 and 2017, there was a reorganization of the cocaine trade that made Ecuador’s ports the principal point of departure for the drug, both for Mexican cartels shipping to the United States and for Albanian cartels selling in Europe… The principal organized crime groups in Ecuador were born in the 1990s as common street gangs, but in the early 2000s, when large international cartels landed in the country and money laundering was facilitated by the dollarization of the economy, they began to specialize in protecting kingpins and trafficking drugs under the aegis of the cartels.”

The piece continues by noting, “The shadow of Nayib Bukele is hovering over Ecuador as over all of Latin America as a harbinger of stable and lasting political hegemony. And Noboa is betting on it.”

In Argentina, hyperinflation and consistent fiscal mismanagement paved the way for Javier Milei and his wildly libertarian world view. How that ends is anyone’s guess but whatever Argentina was doing before sure wasn’t working. Of course, there’s the political turbulence in big brother Brazil that mirrored the January 6 fiasco in the United States. Except they actually pressed charges against Bolsonaro for trying to overthrow the government instead of giving him a chance to run it again. The re-emergence of Lula, though a more pragmatic and corporatist Lula thus far, has led to a realignment with democratic socialist Xiomara Castro in Honduras who herself re-established ties with Venezuela.

The point of this isn’t to name drop and fact dump but to reveal the vast differences between political parties and issues in Latin America. And that doesn’t even touch on the Caribbean nations such as Haiti and Cuba that together accounted for more than 200,000 encounters at the border. When you consider population size and the difficult journey from island nations to the southern border, this is an astonishing number.

To break this all down further and provide some incredible insight, I sat down with Maureen Meyer from WOLA. Maureen is an absolute encyclopedia and really helped clarify both U.S. policy in the LAC region and the conditions within the LAC nations.


Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).