Border Crackdowns Feed a Self-Reinforcing Cycle of Fear and Backlash
Look at the numbers, and something of a mystery emerges regarding the Trump administration’s claims of a surge of uncontrolled arrivals.
Net migration across the southern border is at historic lows. Border apprehensions of unauthorized arrivals were at the lowest in modern record in 2017 and 2018. Apprehensions are up this spring, but still far below the highs of the 1980s, 1990s or early 2000s.
Yet processing centers and detention centers are filling, some to near-capacity, straining to meet even basic medical needs of migrant families. Images from the border show women and children huddling in overcrowded facilities.
The answer, immigration experts say, is that the crisis isn’t primarily caused by the number of arrivals, but by Trump administration policies that disperse them to a handful of centers and that treat families who voluntarily surrender as invaders — creating the appearance of an invasion.
Far from being unique to the Trump administration, it is merely the latest in a pattern across Western democracies, where anti-immigration sentiment is driving demand for harsh policies that may not only fail to reduce arrivals, but to also make the problem look even more uncontrolled and overwhelming.
The causes of that self-reinforcing cycle may run far deeper than policy mismatch or even matters of immigration.
Economic dislocation and demographic change have provoked feelings of lost control and lost status among some whites, however real or imagined. It is a combination of forces, research suggests, that taps into deep-seated instincts to seek safety in a familiar group identity — and to try to reimpose control.
Those feelings tend to focus on borders, even if undocumented immigration is not actually up. And policies that deliver on desires for a strict response can make the problem appear worse, deepening fears of chaos and of being overwhelmed.
This feedback loop, building in the United States and Europe since long before the latest upticks in arrivals, may be a major driver of the populist revolt. And it is playing into the growing global conflict between old-style national identities, imagined as homogeneous and fixed, and a world that no longer aligns with them.
“Migration is really tough because, as Catherine Dauvergne said, it’s the last bastion of sovereignty,” said Jaya Ramji-Nogales, an immigration scholar at Temple University’s law school. “At points in history where the demographic shift is changing, that’s an easy thing for people to be scared of.”
The Cycle of Crisis
Some 30 years ago, the United States constructed a wall on its southern border between the San Ysidro crossing, which links San Diego with Tijuana, and the Pacific Ocean.
This had an unintended effect: It funneled some migrants onto Interstate 5, which cut through the barriers. When a handful were hit by cars, transit authorities posted now-infamous yellow signs showing a silhouette of a dashing family — widely known as “immigrant crossing” signs.
“That gave the impression of utter chaos at the border,” said Douglas S. Massey, a Princeton University immigration scholar. “But nothing had really changed — we were just hardening the border and pushing people into different places.”
The signs fed into a nationwide backlash against unauthorized immigration, Mr. Massey said, leading the Clinton administration to fund more border walls and nearly double border patrol agents.
But rather than reducing arrivals, this pushed them into desolate routes across the Arizona deserts. Crossing sparse ranch lands rather than dense cities, the migrant flows came to look far more numerous, Mr. Massey said, which made “a big impression and fed the narrative that there was this new invasion.”
Now, that cycle may be playing out again.
Policies meant to deter arrivals are putting them into a handful of centers, concentrating numbers in a way that makes them appear overwhelming. The policies have also put asylum claimants and families, who take some time to process, into facilities designed to house unauthorized migrant workers who can be deported quickly.
At the same time, the increase may appear larger than it actually is because a greater share of arrivals are voluntarily surrendering, hoping to apply for asylum. This is a right guaranteed under international law, but administration policy functionally treats them like undocumented immigrants, and even criminals. That feeds perceptions of a surge and creates the overcrowded conditions at detention centers.
“The numbers aren’t that big, but if you’re treating families as criminals and arresting them, holding them, the system can’t handle that,” said Mr. Massey, the Princeton scholar. “It makes it look like there’s absolute chaos at the border, but the chaos is because we don’t have policies that fit the problem.”
An Underlying Tension
A similar cycle has played out in Europe and Australia. Tightened European Union land borders, for example, led more refugees to travel by boats. When they sank, as many did, the horrifying episodes deepened Europeans’ sense of chaos.
The surge of arrivals to Europe in 2015 and 2016 was an undeniable crisis, but it also hit on much deeper issues. That may help explain why it also fed into fears around immigration in the United States.
Psychological research suggests that fears about uncontrolled borders may be tied to deeper fears about loss of identity or loss of control.
Human beings desire the sense of safety they get from a strong, familiar group identity. Though white people in Western countries remain politically and culturally dominant, rising diversity has left some feeling that their status is under threat.
This is perhaps why heavily white areas where children are likely to be less well-off than their parents had been are especially likely to support Mr. Trump, according to a Gallup study.
Fear that one’s in-group will decline in relative power, whatever the cause, can make people feel a sense of loss of control, leading them to cling more firmly to their ethnicity and to see outsiders as a threat. It also tends to make people more nationalistic and more skeptical of immigration, according to a recent study of voters in the United States, Britain and Poland, which found that this fear predicted support for Brexit and for Mr. Trump.
The border, as perhaps the most obvious symbol of national identity and territorial protection, is a natural focal point for those fears. And so to many people, it feels true that there is a wave of uncontrolled immigrants and chaos at the border — even if arrivals are low in historic terms and many of the migrants are simply families seeking asylum.
It may also feel urgently necessary to reimpose order.
But stricter border policies tend to attract more attention and controversy, and can end up making immigration fears seem even more salient. As the news shows desperate people huddled in makeshift camps, creating the impression of a swamped border, the cycle repeats.
The Populist Feedback Loop
These sentiments align near-perfectly with the drivers of right-wing populism: a sense of lost control, a desire to reassert order and a narrowing national identity. And that populist sentiment can feed back into itself.
Global immigration flows are expected to increase over the long term due to climate change, deepening economic disparities and technology-assisted ease of travel. Demographic trends, though easily overstated, are already making Western countries more diverse.
A populist sentiment that calls for resisting this long-underway change is likely to only heighten awareness of it, much like the strict border policies that tend to worsen the appearance of disorder.
The resulting policies can have the opposite of their intended effect.
When the Clinton administration stepped up deportations, it relocated American-born gangs like MS-13 to Central America, where they flourished in an environment of poverty and state weakness. Today, many Central American families are fleeing that gang violence for the United States. In response, Mr. Trump has cut aid to three countries most threatened by gang violence.
These policies can bring significant harm to the migrants and refugees that they target.
“When you have women and children behind fences under a bridge, that’s bad optics,” Mr. Massey said, referring to makeshift migrant detention practices in Texas that left children sleeping on gravel and under mylar blankets. “It’s causing a lot of human damage.”