Inhumane U.S. Policies Fuel Humanitarian Crisis on U.S.-Mexico Border

Inhumane U.S. Policies Fuel Humanitarian Crisis on U.S.-Mexico Border

By: Avery Closser

Record-breaking numbers of migrants have made their way to the U.S.-Mexico border over the past five years; 2.5 million encounters were recorded last year alone. The vast majority of migrants arriving at the southern border are seeking legal entry into the U.S., primarily through asylum or parole programs designated for specific nationalities. These individuals come to the U.S. from all over the world; however, most migrants are South or Central American. Reasons for migrating may include fleeing violence, governmental repression or corruption, lack of employment opportunities, poverty, or family reunification, among others. Yet, despite the high number of people arriving at the border, U.S. policy has failed to efficiently process asylum and other legal entry applications. Draconian policies implemented by the Trump Administration have left a harmful legacy, and, although President Biden has dismantled many of these policies, he continues to uphold similar practices. The result has left thousands of migrants stranded on the Mexican border for months on end, the majority of whom lack adequate access to food, shelter, and employment and face constant insecurity and violence. Humanitarian actors, both local and international, are struggling to keep up with the rising number of people in need amid this policy-driven humanitarian crisis. It is apparent that in disregarding the consequences of their political decisions, the U.S. is directly responsible for the dire conditions along the Mexican border and the lives of countless migrant individuals.  

The first refugee camp on the U.S-Mexico border was established in 2018 in the Mexican city of Matamoros. Considered to be a temporary solution to the humanitarian impact of policies enacted by Trump, it quickly became apparent that this was the start of a more permanent crisis. In addition to Trump’s Metering and Migrant Protection Protocol policies, Title 42 and Title 8 have exacerbated the crisis on the border, as migrants are forced to wait for months for their asylum appointments, often in unfamiliar and unsafe cities along the border. The controversial Title 42, which was enacted in 2020, effectively closed the U.S. border to asylum seekers due to COVID-related health concerns. Over the past three years, more than 2.6 million migrants were expelled under Title 42 and Title 8, which removes migrants who crossed into the U.S. irregularly. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was codified into U.S. law by the Refugee Act of 1980, everyone has the right to seek asylum, regardless of where, why, or how they arrived. And yet, migrants with undeniable claims to asylum are expelled from the U.S. and forced to wait in inhumane conditions. Although Title 42 was rescinded earlier this year, it paved the way for the U.S. to continue prohibiting the entry of migrants through Title 8. Moreover, the Biden administration has proposed several harmful policies that extend limits on asylum access, including expelling asylum-seekers who did not first apply for protection in the countries they passed through en route to the U.S., a policy which legal and advocacy experts agree may force migrants into situations potentially as dangerous as those they are fleeing. Due to these harsh policies, thousands of people have found themselves stranded along the border with no legitimate means to leave and no end in sight.

Prior to these policies, migrants stayed in Mexican border towns for a few days at a time before continuing their journey north. Now, the existing humanitarian infrastructure is being pushed to its limits as shelters and soup kitchens run by local NGOs and churches are overwhelmed. The pandemic led to a decrease in volunteers, funding, and food and clothing donations, and in many towns, shelters have closed or are constantly overcrowded. As a result, migrants, including families with young children, are forced to sleep on the streets in makeshift camps or run-down buildings, where they lack basic necessities like clean water, food, and medical care. In a survey conducted by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), 96% of surveyed migrants stranded along the U.S.-Mexico border reported lacking means of subsistence, 90% reported lacking access to healthcare, and 34% reported resorting to coping mechanisms such as begging. In the border city of Nuevo Laredo, more than 3,000 people, including young children, live in makeshift shelters exposed to rain and extreme heat and lack toilets, showers, food, and drinking water. MSF teams on the ground have treated individuals experiencing respiratory conditions, gastrointestinal diseases, and skin, kidney, and gynecological infections—all symptoms of poor living conditions.

Moreover, due to the heightened activity and movement through these border towns, criminal groups and cartels have increased their presence, leaving migrants vulnerable to violence, extortion, exploitation, kidnapping, and sexual assault. In the aforementioned IRC survey, over half of the migrants surveyed reported directly experiencing a safety issue or crime in Mexico, with women and children among the most vulnerable groups. Race-based discrimination and language barriers have created even worse conditions for black asylum-seekers in Mexico, who have experienced heightened violence and are often denied employment opportunities. Deirdre Schifeling, the National Political Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), described her experience visiting the southern border: “During this trip, we’ve witnessed firsthand the pain and suffering of thousands of families who are being failed by the Biden administration’s immigration policies. Parents and small children fleeing violence have no other choice but to wait for months in extremely unsanitary and dangerous camps for an appointment they can never get. Hours every day are spent futilely trying to get the CBP One app to work, while children get sicker and fragile tarp shelters get blown away.”

Since President Biden took office, Human Rights First has documented over 13,480 reports of murder, torture, rape, kidnapping, and other attacks against migrants stranded in Mexico. These staggering numbers demonstrate the cruelty of these policies. In March of this year, 40 people died in a fire that broke out in a government-run shelter in Ciudad Juárez, after authorities intentionally kept migrants confined despite their desperate calls for help. The fire was allegedly started by detainees protesting conditions in the overcrowded shelter—a tragic price to pay to demand improved humanitarian attention. Various international NGOs are providing relief along the border; however, the international and national aid response lags far behind the current scale of need, and local non-profits, churches, and volunteers are struggling to keep up with arriving migrants. While international organizations such as the Red Cross, MSF, IRC, and various UN agencies have an established presence in Mexico, assistance on the border is strained due to the sheer number of people arriving daily. Moreover, the pandemic forced the scope of international aid to shrink, while other crises have shifted attention elsewhere.

I argue that aid agencies should expand their presence and identify critical entry points for interventions along the U.S.-Mexico border to provide consistent and equitable aid to migrants. Moreover, the role the U.S. is playing in sustaining the migrant crisis cannot be understated. By failing to rapidly dismantle harmful legislation implemented by the Trump administration, I believe President Biden is responsible for putting the lives of countless people at risk. By upholding legislation that forces migrants to wait for asylum appointments in increasingly unsafe conditions, the U.S. government violates the fundamental right to seek asylum. After three years, President Biden has made shockingly little progress in reversing Trump’s political failures, and, as a result, people are suffering a wretched fate.


Avery is a second-year MALD student at Fletcher studying Human Security and Gender and Intersectional Analysis, with a focus on migration and displacement in Latin America. Prior to starting at Fletcher, Avery worked for an Immigrant Rights Organization in Tacoma, WA, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the World Affairs Council non-profit in Seattle, WA, an intellectual property law firm in Seattle, and, lastly, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Avery graduated from the University of Puget Sound with majors in International Political Economy and Spanish, and a minor in Latin American Studies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.