Trump Got What He Wanted at the Border. Would Biden Undo It?

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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: JAN BYUN/PROPUBLICA; SOURCE PHOTOS: DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES
  • Photo illustration: Jan Byun/ProPublica; source photos: Drew Angerer/Getty Images


Democrats agree that Trump’s caused asylum-seekers unacceptable misery. But the goal of deterring people from migrating to the U.S. — which has motivated Trump’s complex web of border policies — has seduced some Democrats, too.


In early October, hundreds of migrants in Honduras set out in a “caravan” with plans to travel through Mexico to the United States.

The timing was similar to a caravan two years ago, which swelled to thousands of people, overwhelmed Guatemalan and Mexican border authorities and became the leading issue for President Donald Trump and Republicans going into the 2018 midterm election.

The latest caravan was stopped hundreds of miles short of the U.S. border, hardly making a blip in the news cycle. Shortly after entering Guatemala, police and migration authorities set up roadblocks and rounded up the group for deportation back to Honduras.

It was so routine that Trump, ill with COVID, didn’t even bother to bang out a celebratory tweet, much less talk about deploying the military to avert an invasion as he did in 2018.

The fate of the caravan is a symbol of a larger success. Over the past year and a half, Trump and his relentlessly focused aide, Stephen Miller, have largely achieved their goal of choking off the flow of unauthorized immigrants into the United States — especially families from Central America, many of whom come with the intention of requesting asylum. They have done so with a combination of policies that Tom Jawetz, a former Democratic aide to the House Judiciary Committee, describes as a “waterproof fabric” to repel migrants.

New U.S. regulations and legal precedents make it harder for someone to be granted asylum once they arrive. But few these days even get the chance to ask. As much as possible, the Trump administration has simply expelled asylum-seekers.

The apprehension numbers, which officials say Trump is obsessed with, tell the story. As the expulsion policies locked into place, arrests of families entering the U.S. fell from nearly 85,000 in May 2019 to less than 5,000 in February 2020.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic finished the job, both suppressing border crossings even further and giving the Trump administration an opportunity to use an obscure public health law to outright expel most border-crossers with no chance to make an asylum claim.

Critics, including Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, say the results have been achieved with a scale of callousness that is in contradiction with America’s fundamental values. Biden has pledged to undo the longest-standing of Trump’s expulsion policies: the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico” program, under which tens of thousands of migrants were sent to Mexico to wait, sometimes in sub-refugee-camp conditions, for court dates in the U.S.

“Donald Trump has slammed the door shut in the face of families fleeing persecution and violence,” Biden tweeted in January on the one-year anniversary of the program’s implementation. “On day one, I will eliminate President Trump’s decision to limit asylum and end the MPP program. #RestoreAsylumNOW.”

But MPP is only one of the policies that make up the “waterproof fabric” of deterrence through expulsion. Just how far Biden would go to unravel that fabric remains entirely unclear, even to campaign advisers who’ve helped develop policies that might do it.

Interviews with Democrats, advocates and policy experts in recent weeks have revealed that the Trump administration’s excesses have papered over, but not healed, an intra-Democratic rift on how to handle asylum-seekers from Central America. The disagreement, which first erupted into view when the administration of President Barack Obama faced the 2014 border crisis, is essentially an argument about using deterrence as a strategy: whether it is appropriate to discourage people from making an often-dangerous journey to the U.S. where they might not ultimately win legal relief by preventing or punishing those who have already come.

One Democratic camp sees immigration as a national security matter and deterrence as a necessary border control strategy. In this view, border policy should be a balance: The U.S. shouldn’t shut out victims of persecution, nor should it create “pull factors” that encourage too many people to come who may not ultimately qualify for full asylum.

The other camp, made up of those who see immigration as a humanitarian issue, believes it’s neither legally nor morally justifiable to punish people fleeing desperate circumstances to send a message to others.

The Biden campaign, like the Obama administration, has sought to de-emphasize the split by focusing on long-term solutions in Central America. But no one is certain what that will mean if Biden is sworn in, especially if rising migration creates another “border crisis.”

That’s a possibility during a second Trump term, too. The expulsion policies that have effectively kept people from seeking asylum have their own unintended consequences, leading people to seek new ways into the U.S. And as COVID-19-related travel restrictions lift, the economic crisis created by the pandemic may push ever more migrants northward. “When this pandemic ceases,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters in October, “we’re anticipating it will be worse” than 2019 — when Trump’s rage and tweeted-out threats ultimately cleared a path for the dispersal policies.

The United States may have reached the limits of deterrence. No one knows what comes next.

Policy as a Blunt Instrument

Until the early 2010s, unauthorized migration to the United States was dominated by single adults seeking jobs. Deterrence was an uncontroversial strategy. Border enforcement had been ramped up along with punishments for those apprehended, a strategy the government euphemistically termed “consequence delivery.” Once informally turned back, migrants were increasingly subjected to criminal charges and formally deported, making it harder for them to legally immigrate to the U.S. in the future.

After the Great Recession, the population of people coming to the U.S. without papers fundamentally changed. It included far more children traveling with or without their parents (or other family members); far more migrants from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador (referred to collectively as the “Northern Triangle”); and far more who were seeking humanitarian protection.

The shift is not easily explained. Both individually and collectively, the decision to migrate is driven by a mixture of need and opportunity.

Opportunity often comes from changes in smuggling operations, and the increase in families coming to the U.S. in late 2018 is generally attributed to the emergence in Mexico of long-haul, relatively cheap bus routes that would whisk travelers across the country in a couple of days.

Furthermore, the needs that drove people to emigrate from Central America in recent years don’t easily fit the distinction U.S. law draws between “economic migrants,” who aren’t allowed to come to the U.S. without papers, and asylees, who face persecution for their ethnicity or political views.

Starvation after repeated crop failures, gang vendettas, domestic violence — any of these might make fleeing to the U.S. the only viable option. None of these were categorically enshrined as “persecution” under U.S. law, although in some cases, under some circumstances, they did qualify.

The U.S. is committed, morally and by international treaty, not to turn away those facing persecution in their home countries. Policies that deter migration are a blunt instrument; it’s impossible to design one that discourages only would-be migrants who don’t qualify for asylum while welcoming those who do.

Would-be migrants themselves couldn’t know whether they’d ultimately qualify for asylum — the definition of “persecution” is legally complex and arcane. What they did know is what they’d heard from relatives, or former neighbors, who’d recently made the journey: that after a short while, they were released from detention and allowed to live in the United States while waiting for a court date years in the future.

The new pattern of migration created a new cycle of action and reaction that started under Trump’s predecessor, Obama.

The cycle began in spring 2014, when the number of unaccompanied Central American children arriving at the border began to overwhelm the U.S. government’s ability to receive them. U.S. law obligates border agents to quickly send children who have arrived in the U.S. without papers or parents to the Department of Health and Human Services, which was responsible for finding suitable sponsors for them (usually a relative) and caring for them in the meantime. As thousands of children started coming each month, the system bottlenecked, with children stuck at the border for days or weeks.

The administration set up temporary “holding facilities” — cagelike dormitories — to house children until they could be sent to HHS. The resulting news coverage of a “border crisis” quickly piqued Americans’ interest. Immigration, rarely a top issue, soared to the top of Gallup polls and caused alarm within the Obama administration.

The administration had only recently started to address criticism from the left of its immigration record, particularly its deportations of undocumented immigrants who’d been living in the U.S. It was weighing an expansion of “deferred action” programs (like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created in 2012) that would use executive power to temporarily protect unauthorized immigrants from deportation. The border crisis — which was seen as reinforcing a narrative of Democratic weakness — put the administration on the defensive again, causing it to wait until after the 2014 midterm elections to announce new enforcement policies.

Obama’s response to the crisis was twofold: a promise to address its “root causes” by working on economic development and security with Central American governments and a short-term effort to quickly send home migrants who had already arrived.

As Obama’s vice president, Biden became the point person for this “regional” approach, which involved a fair amount of tough talk. “Those who are pondering risking their lives to reach the United States should be aware of what awaits them,” he told reporters at a regional summit in Guatemala in June 2014. “It will not be open arms.”

The Obama administration framed deterrence as an effort to protect would-be migrants, particularly kids traveling on their own, from criminal smugglers. “Putting children in the hands of smugglers and these thugs and drug traffickers is a reckless and dangerous undertaking for any parent to do,” Biden said.

Internally, though, the argument was put in terms that would later be central in the Trump administration’s deliberations. Amy Pope, a National Security Council adviser at the time who would later become deputy national security adviser, laid it out in a 2018 interview with PBS’ “Frontline: “The truth is, you can absorb 70,000 kids if it ends at 70,000 kids. The question is: Is that the end of it? The population of Central America is in the millions. ... We didn’t think it was feasible, or consistent with what the American public would tolerate, to just say, ‘OK, you get here, you’re in.’”

This wasn’t the consensus view within the administration — or the Democratic Party. After pushback from congressional Democrats, the Obama White House dropped its request for Congress to change the law to allow Central American children seeking asylum to be sent back without court hearings. (The Trump administration has repeatedly demanded Congress make the very same changes.)

The fate of families traveling with children became another point of disagreement within the administration. In that case, the security-minded advocates won out. The Obama administration quickly built family detention centers in New Mexico and Texas, where families were often forced to appear before a judge without access to counsel or an opportunity to prepare their cases. (Biden called on lawyers to assist migrant families, but his pitch to Congress for emergency funds included no money for legal services.)

Arguably, the family detention policy was undone because the administration was too honest. By acknowledging deterrence as its goal, it admitted it was punishing asylum-seekers to send a message. A federal judge explicitly chided the Department of Homeland Security, saying that “deterring future migration” wasn’t an acceptable reason to detain a family already seeking asylum. In spring 2015, a federal judge, Dolly Gee, modified a longstanding court settlement that limits how long children can be held in immigration detention, so that it applied to children held with their parents as well as those traveling alone.

The crackdown cycle continued.

Because overall border apprehensions are a fraction of their pre-2008 levels, relatively small increases in numbers result in big swings in percentages. And those newcomers, though fewer, strained U.S. border capacity because protections built into the law prevented children, families and asylum-seekers from simply being deported.

Those relative increases in apprehensions stirred panic on the U.S. side. The panic would spur new efforts to detain and deport asylum-seekers when and after they arrived in the U.S. The hope was to deter future migrants by changing what they heard, through word of mouth, from those who’d already come. Numbers would drop for a couple of months, then slowly climb again — until U.S. officials imposed another crackdown.

After the first crackdown ebbed, in late 2015, panic returned. The Obama administration sought to deter asylum-seekers by rounding up those who’d previously been ordered deported but hadn’t left, sweeping through immigrant neighborhoods in the first weekend of 2016. The courts again stepped in, preventing most deportations by ruling that asylum-seekers hadn’t been given a fair chance to make their cases. Trump’s election was a deterrent all its own, bringing in its first months the quietest period the U.S.-Mexico border has ever seen. It didn’t last.

The Making of the “Waterproof Fabric”

The Trump administration adopted a simple solution to the tension between deterrence and humanitarianism: It maximized deterrence. (In Trump’s rhetoric, this became a fixation on “toughness” at the border.) Where U.S. law required some commitment to humanitarianism — most notably, by guaranteeing that anyone who arrived in the U.S. had the ability to request asylum and be screened for potential persecution — the administration looked for, and found, places where the law didn’t apply.

Trump’s public rhetoric took a while to adjust to the new border reality, after a campaign in which he’d blamed Mexico for “sending” murderers and rapists. Administration hardliners understood early on that most of those coming were now children, families and other asylum-seekers. They were acutely aware of the extra protections built in for those groups in U.S. law, and the mismatch between the needs of children and families and a border infrastructure built to hold and deport single adults. And as border arrest numbers climbed again in late 2017 and early 2018, the White House, led by Miller, moved into crisis footing.

In spring 2018, as Congress considered legislation to legalize unauthorized immigrants protected from deportation by the DACA program, which Trump had sought to end, a “senior administration official” briefed the press about a steep rise in “inadmissibles” at the border and the legal gaps that allowed them to stay. In particular, the administration aimed its fire at the modified court agreement that required families to get released from detention after a few weeks — creating the possibility that they could “abscond” into the U.S. and skip their court hearings.

The administration has consistently exaggerated how often families actually disappeared; the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, examining a separate immigration court docket created under Trump for families making asylum claims, found that over 85% of families appeared at their first court hearing after release. (Furthermore, there’s evidence that when families do miss court dates, it’s because they don’t know about them.) But the objections of Trump advisers like Miller to what they called “catch and release” were fundamental: It was an intolerable risk that the U.S. had no obligation to take on.

“These loopholes are a grave threat to America’s sovereignty,” the official said, “and a threat to, really, the foundations of American society itself.”

There were advantages to turning away people seeking asylum before they could cross the border. People who do not formally enter the U.S. don’t count in the apprehension stats, which Trump wanted to keep low.

By simply refusing to allow asylum-seekers to set foot on U.S. soil, the administration could avoid the clear obligation in immigration law that requires governments to weigh asylum claims from anyone who enters the country. (The Trump administration attempted to undo this law via regulation in fall 2018, but it was quickly stopped in court.)

If the administration couldn’t prevent their initial entry, it could at least get them quickly out of the U.S. and beyond the reach of American courts. Where the asylum-seekers ended up, and in what conditions, was less important than where they weren’t: in American communities.

The administration needed for other countries to cooperate to stop migrants en route or to agree to take them off the U.S.’ hands.

It wasn’t a new idea. Getting Mexico to interdict migrants en route to the U.S. had been part of the 2014 crackdown. In mid-2014, according to a ProPublica analysis of U.S. and Mexican government data, the U.S. was apprehending six people at its southern border for every one apprehended in Mexico; by the end of that year, Mexico had reached near-parity. But when the diplomatic pressure eased, Mexico’s enforcement slackened.

The Trump administration’s strategy was simply never to let up on pressure — to treat migration as the central, indeed the only issue that mattered in the U.S. relationship with Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Plan A was to sign a formal deal, known as a “safe third country” agreement, with Mexico, forcing migrants to seek asylum in whichever country they arrived in first. The Mexican government, whose own refugee and asylum agency was already understaffed for the soaring number of applications, at first rejected the agreement.

But the election of populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to Mexico’s presidency, after he campaigned on a promise to stand up to Trump, changed Mexico’s position just as the number of families coming to the U.S. reached unprecedented levels.

Within days of Lopez Obrador’s inauguration, the U.S. announced that it would send some asylum-seekers back to Mexico to await hearings in U.S. courts, using an obscure legal provision. Officially, it was a unilateral decision, allowing Lopez Obrador to say that he hadn’t buckled to U.S. demands. But Mexico announced the same morning that it would accept people expelled by the U.S. with asylum claims.

While both countries signed an agreement outlining their respective responsibilities — the U.S. would give people speedy trials and due process; Mexico would guarantee their safety — it soon became clear that neither side was accountable for complying with what it had promised.

Initially, the program was limited to certain areas of the border that Mexico considered safe enough for migrants to stay. But apprehensions kept rising. Trump’s patience ran out.

In May 2019, Trump threatened to impose massive tariffs if Mexico didn’t do more to fix immigration. The threat, issued via tweet, was fleshed out by other administration officials: They demanded more migrant interdiction on Mexico’s southern border, more crackdowns on migrant smugglers and a renewed demand for a formal “safe third country” agreement. In the end, the two countries agreed on a border-wide expansion of the arrangement they already had: non-Mexicans would be sent to wait indefinitely in Mexico, even to dangerous border regions like the Rio Grande Valley, for asylum hearings in the U.S.

Mexico moved quickly to show it was doing what Trump wanted. Its newly constituted National Guard was deployed to its southern and northern borders, and migrant interdictions climbed at Mexico’s southern border while U.S. immigration officials reported a drop in arrival numbers.

The U.S. provided money to the International Organization for Migration for buses to ferry migrants home if they abandoned their asylum claims. It offered no such support for housing or protecting migrants seeking asylum in the U.S, or for expanding Mexico’s capacity to process applications for those who viewed staying there as a possible alternative. In theory, the Mexican government had guaranteed migrants services and safety, but Trump administration officials did nothing to enforce that pledge.

But by the time the governments reconvened in September, Trump was so pleased with Mexico’s performance that he was bragging about it in his rallies. Mexico had gotten to Trump the most effective way: with “the numbers.”

The Mexican government, in the September meeting, showed Trump a chart with a stark downward trend since May. It reflected, in part, the very real decline over the summer and fall — not the 50% drop that had been promised, but a stark decline nonetheless.

But the Mexican government had massaged the numbers: It subtracted out the asylum-seekers who’d made it to the U.S. but were being forced to wait in Mexico under the MPP program. The chart essentially reflected only the migrants who were still the U.S.’ responsibility.

The decline in those numbers was enough to keep Trump satisfied. It undercut those in his administration still trying to pressure Mexico to do more. And it blunted internal concerns within DHS that the MPP program was being implemented carelessly, and that migrants waiting in Mexico were falling through the cracks.

A similar playbook — private negotiations interspersed with tariff threats — persuaded outgoing Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales to agree in August 2019 to allow the U.S. to ship asylum-seekers of other nationalities to Guatemala, on the theory that they could apply for asylum in that country instead of in the U.S. Similar deals with Honduras and El Salvador were inked that fall.

Only Guatemala’s agreement was implemented before the coronavirus pandemic hit, with 939 people being sent back (only 20 of whom actually applied for asylum). The Trump administration expects to start up the others after the pandemic. And Miller hopes to expand the arrangement to countries on other continents that feed U.S. immigration.

But the coronavirus has given the U.S. its most robust tool yet for repelling asylum-seekers. An order signed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March (at White House insistence and over the vehement objections of CDC career officials) prohibited the entry of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico in the name of public health. The order gave border agents the authority to simply expel them. In the months since, 200,000 migrants have been expelled, either to Mexico or to their home countries. None have been given the opportunity to request asylum or explain why they believed they would be persecuted if they returned to their homelands.

The combination of international agreements, health concerns and new tactics has effectively shut the border. So far, none of the elements in the administration’s new “waterproof fabric” have been overturned in court or become the subject of public uproar, as family separation did in 2018.

A Fragile Equilibrium — and an Uneasy Future

The Biden campaign hasn’t made specific commitments about which Trump policies it would and wouldn’t roll back. Some changes (such as those finalized in regulation) will take years to undo; some (such as fully reinstating the DACA program, currently in limbo after Trump’s first attempt to end it was struck down by the Supreme Court) could be accomplished through executive order on Day 1.

Border policies pose a more complicated question. Biden promised to roll back the “wait in Mexico” program for asylum applicants within his first 100 days in office. However, he has made no such promise about the CDC order, which also forces asylum-seekers to Mexico and doesn’t promise them U.S. court dates.

The domestic changes to asylum wrought by the Trump administration could be unraveled over time by a sufficiently motivated DHS and Justice Department, though it could not happen instantly. Even something as simple as reversing Trump’s changes to asylum officer training would take months.

Whether change will be a top priority of Biden appointees would depend on whether the humanitarian camp or the deterrence camp prevails in the administration.

Biden’s pre-transition planners appear to be keeping options open, drafting plans to reverse Trump policies but not committing to using them.

The consensus is that if migration rises again, the deterrence proponents would have the upper hand and would leave more of Trump’s framework in place.

And the larger forces in the region — climate change, economic instability, the spread of the pandemic — makes that look increasingly likely.

Border apprehensions have already increased substantially since March, though they’re still quite low in historical context. Agents made over 54,000 apprehensions in September, which is higher than any September since 2006, but far below Septembers of the first half of the 2000s, when apprehensions averaged 80,000.

Those numbers are somewhat inflated by a rise in what the government calls “recidivism” — migrants caught at the border, expelled, then caught as they try again. Before the pandemic, only 7% of migrants tried to reenter after getting caught; now, over a third do.

Recidivism rates were high in the mid-2000s, too, which makes sense, since the CDC expulsion policy essentially replicates the old border policy of informal returns rather than formal deportations. As Cristobal Ramon of the Bipartisan Policy Center put it, “When you remove the consequences” of getting caught, deportation proceedings, you remove the disincentive.

What particularly worries analysts is the possibility that the 2000s will resurface in another way: large-scale emigration from Mexico. For many years, Mexico was the largest of the world’s sending countries, but the movement of manufacturing jobs encouraged by the NAFTA treaty and the rise of a middle class lessened the incentives to come north for work. In recent years, Mexico’s worsening security situation and softening economy made migration more appealing. This year, Mexico has been hit harder by the pandemic than almost any other country in the hemisphere, prompting more people to consider the U.S. as an option.

The reduction in Central American family migration might have been temporary, too. There’s some evidence that smuggling networks deliberately stopped operating when COVID-19 became a crisis in the spring, which would have suppressed the number of travelers. They’re now restarting them. Restrictions on domestic travel due to the virus are temporary, but the long-term effects of the economic crisis it’s caused will last much longer; people with a greater need to emigrate than before the pandemic will find themselves with the opportunity.

This is also likely to happen if Trump wins a second term. A threat assessment by DHS analysts issued in October warns that “the number of apprehensions at the border will significantly climb post-pandemic,” with the potential for a return to “unprecedented numbers of families and children.”

At the same time, however, senior Trump administration officials are preemptively blaming the promise of relaxed policies under a Democrat for any surge of migrants at the border.

A second Trump administration would likely respond to a migration rise by renewing pressure on other countries to interdict migrants, particularly Mexico. A Biden administration might well do something similar, returning to the 2014 model put in place by Obama.

Whether they lean toward national security or humanitarian concerns, those closest to Biden on immigration agree on the need for a regional solution: for long-term development in Central America and a commitment to giving asylum-seekers a fair chance to state their case. Doing so, they argue, can be compatible with limiting undocumented migration in the short run by maintaining the enforcement strategies deployed in the Obama years.

One vocal champion of Biden’s 2014 approach was Kevin McAleenan — who, as acting homeland security secretary under Trump, championed the Guatemalan asylum agreement. In 2018, McAleenan described enforcement as a pillar of Biden’s earlier initiative: “We’ve talked to the leaders, and they don’t want to lose their youth and energy to this migration flow and don’t want to put their children in the hands of smugglers.”

That thinking could tempt a Biden administration to leave Trump’s agreements in place. How the Mexican and Central American governments will respond isn’t clear. Against expectations, the Trump-Lopez Obrador relationship is “going pretty well,” Roberto Suro, an immigration specialist who now teaches journalism at the University of Southern California, noted. “‘What is (Biden) going to give AMLO that Trump didn’t?’ is one way of looking at it.”

An advocate who’s conferred with Biden’s team put it this way: “Long term, putting in place a refugee program for the Western Hemisphere has to be the goal. And I believe that is where they’re going, which is great.”

“Short term,” the advocate continued, “I’m not going to like the things they’re doing.”

The Limits of Deterrence

Critics often describe the Trump administration’s approach to immigration with a line coined by The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer: “The cruelty is the point.”

That’s the logic of deterrence: that the harm visited upon people serving as an example is justified if it prevents an even worse harm.

The Obama administration viewed that harm as the journey to the U.S. and the encouragement of further migration. The Trump administration views it as a danger to American sovereignty, and to public safety, if asylum-seekers are allowed to come and stay in the U.S. The former contended with internal advocates for a more humanitarian approach; the latter, for all intents and purposes, did not.

To say that deterrence worked is to say that it achieved its goal. That’s separate from the question of whether the harms inflicted were worth it.

The Trump administration will likely be remembered for the suffering it inflicted in spring 2018 when it adopted a “zero tolerance” policy that led to the separation of thousands of families who’d crossed into the U.S. In the final weeks of the presidential campaign, reports that 545 children still not reunited with parents led to renewed attention to the policy, and to Trump being asked to account for it during the final debate.

But the successes of the “waterproof fabric” strategy mean that its harms aren’t as readily visible. There’s the quiet despair of the hundreds of asylum-seekers remaining in the tent camp in Matamoros, who have no idea when they’ll have their asylum claims heard in the U.S. There are migrants in Tijuana who have chosen to make their crossing through more remote and dangerous routes. “Prevention through deterrence is working,” Paulina Olvera Canez, the director of a migrant shelter in Tijuana, said this fall, “because they’re abandoning their cases in Tijuana, but they’re crossing through the Sonoran Desert.”

The longest-standing effort to document deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border, based around Nogales, Arizona, has already catalogued more in the first nine months of 2020 than it has for any full year since 2013. In the months since the CDC order was issued, for every 1,000 migrants apprehended in the Yuma, Arizona, sector, five have died in the Nogales desert. During fiscal year 2020, CBP agents discovered over 300 cases, up nearly a third from 2019, in which migrants were being smuggled in tractor-trailers — a method that can lead to mass suffocation.

With all of this, the Trump administration has been reluctant to declare victory at the border. Officials acknowledge that 2020 has provided the best possible circumstances for deterrence, and even this year’s combination of the CDC order, unemployment in the U.S. and few prospects for asylum have failed to choke off the flow of migrants.

What an alternate path would be, and whether it could be any more successful, is no clearer than it was six years ago. The choices remain the same as they were in 2014, and the consequences no less wrenching.

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