"Biden’s illegal-immigration welcome mat caused disaster at the border," blared a headline from the New York Post, while CNN more subtly declared "the issue appears to be becoming whether migrants desperate for a better life in the US have misinterpreted Biden's vows for a more humane stance on immigration."
The only problem with this narrative is that there’s no evidence it’s true. While more migrants are crossing the border than in a typical year, and the increase in border crossings did happen at roughly the same time as Biden taking office, it’s important to remember that correlation does not prove causation.
Experts point to other factors — like gang violence in Central America, a pent-up demand for travel to the US during the pandemic, and back-to-back climate change-fueled hurricanes that affected Central America immediately before Biden took office — as the major causes of an increase in border crossings in 2021.
The myth of "Biden’s border crisis"
On a recent reporting trip to the Texas border region, NHK interviewed a dozen migrants who had recently crossed into the US, only one of whom was even aware that border policy had changed under President Biden. A woman from El Salvador told us she fled the country due to threats from her child’s father. Multiple people said they lost their homes to the hurricanes and had no opportunity for work or basic survival. A man from Peru fled his country, which is experiencing a steep increase in political violence amid a resurgence of the nation’s latent fascist movement, after his daughters received kidnapping threats. None of them were drawn to the US by a change in Biden’s policies.
Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs a shelter for migrants near the border and has been called "the Mother Teresa of South Texas," said most migrants are leaving their countries for the same reason they always have: to find safety for their children.
"From day one, it has always been the child," Pimentel told NHK. "That's why we see so many children. Mothers really upfront will tell you: ‘We came because my child is already at the age to be targeted to be kidnapped, to be recruited for gangs.’"
Biden’s border policies are not very different from Trump’s, Pimentel said, and do not seem to have much of an impact on the number of migrants trying to reach the US.
"I don't see any changes in policy that are so dramatic that they will invite everybody to come in," she said. "Because the border is closed, and this administration has not moved forward to lift the border being closed. It continues to be [shut down], and so many families are being sent back, almost 100 percent back to Mexico."
Harsh immigration restrictions remain
It’s true that border policy hasn’t changed very much under the new administration. Biden left in place Trump-era restrictions banning almost everyone from crossing the border due to supposed public health concerns relating to Covid-19. The restrictions remain even as Biden celebrates the end of the pandemic in the US and most of the country has completely reopened and removed mask mandates. And, in keeping with Trump-era policy, the Biden administration has already deported more than 600,000 people, despite the fact that he pledged during the campaign to halt deportations altogether.
Border policy under the current administration is far harsher than it was under Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. The only modern president with a more restrictive immigration program was Donald Trump, and even then, the differences were minor. Biden has even bragged about his strict immigration policies, telling the press "we’re sending back the vast majority of the families that are coming."
None of this deters right-wing media from railing against "Biden’s border crisis" and insisting, without evidence, that the administration’s policies are responsible for the increase in migrants. Republican-oriented media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart rely on the work of anti-immigrant think tanks to support their position, and even "liberal" media like NPR and The Washington Post have featured anti-immigrant extremists as expert voices on the issue.
Anti-immigrant activists shape the national narrative
One such group that holds outsize influence over the national conversation is the South Texans’ Property Rights Association, or STPRA. The group is radical by any possible measure.
At an STPRA meeting attended by NHK, group member Justin Cappadonna insisted that hate crimes against Latinos are a natural reaction to an increase in immigration, and referred to undocumented immigrants with the hateful term "illegal aliens," saying "I refuse to call them immigrants, because they're not immigrants."
STPRA President Susan Kibbe told NHK that Biden is controlled by a shadowy "far-left group" and alluded to vast child-sex-trafficking rings at the border — both mainstays of the extreme-right QAnon conspiracy theory.
Even "liberal" media in the US has repeatedly quoted STPRA members without identifying their links to the group. The Washington Post, for example, quoted Texas sheriff Benny Martinez in a recent article without mentioning that he is a member. In April, NPR ran a piece about immigration relying almost exclusively on Martinez and fellow STPRA member Whit Jones III, again without identifying their involvement in an extremist anti-immigrant group. Both pieces (and many, many others) sensationalize the situation, portraying migrants as STPRA wants them to be portrayed — dangerous criminals threatening the lives of farmers and ranchers living near the border.
Even more alarmingly, the group has made inroads with national politicians, and is a major backer of an immigration-reform bill put forward by a group of anti-immigrant lawmakers from both parties. Texas Senator John Cornyn proudly touts the STPRA’s support for the bill, and STPRA members told NHK they have also met with Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar of Texas and right-leaning Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both co-sponsors of the bill. The proposed law, known as the "Bipartisan Border Solutions Act," has raised alarms among human-rights groups, who say it’s an extension of Trump’s brutal anti-immigrant policies.
The STPRA’s strategy amounts to a far-right disinformation campaign, aimed at creating the impression among Americans that our country is being flooded with dangerous criminals thanks to Biden’s irresponsible policies. Both of these assertions are false — Biden’s policies are not the cause of the increase of migrants crossing the border, and undocumented immigrants are roughly half as likely as native-born Americans to commit a crime.
Immigrants and refugees are already suffering the consequences of the far-right pressure campaign, as detention-center populations have swelled under Biden to nearly pre-pandemic levels, leading to a recent surge in Covid-19 cases at the facilities. It’s indisputably true that the situation at the Southern border is a crisis — but the victims of this crisis are the migrants themselves, not American citizens living near the border.