Every international border has a story attached to it. These ‘border stories’ play an important role in helping us to make sense of the political geographies of nation-states.
During the 1840s, for example, the dominant narrative of the USA-Mexico border was of Mexican territorial loss and US territorial consolidation. After the US–Mexican War of 1846/47, the border migrated southwards as the USA gained nearly 2.6 million square kilometres of Mexican territory.
In recent years, the dominant border story has been about crossings and control, immigration and drug trafficking. A recent report, however, reveals a new chapter: how more and more children are attempting to cross the border without adult supervision or the support of their family.
It estimates that in the period 2014/15, between 70,000 and 90,000 unaccompanied minors will be apprehended after crossing the border. This represents a huge increase from five or six years ago, when the figure recorded was less than 10,000.
The USA-Mexico border stretches 3,145 kilometres from Brownsville/Matamoros in the east to San Diego/Tijuana in the west. The border region extends some 65 kilometres north and south of the official boundary. With a population of around 12 million people, this area ranges between urbanised, mountainous and desert regions, and in places, the border follows the courses of major river systems, including the Rio Grande and the Colorado.
By all accounts, the USA/Mexico border is the world’s most crossed international border, with more than 350 million legal crossings made each year. As many as 250,000 people cross illegally each year, and the USA has invested heavily in border enforcement and security. But although there are around 20,000 border-patrol agents, they effectively control less than 1,100 kilometres of the border, with an ability to prevent illegal entries along a mere 208 kilometres.
To make it across the USA-Mexico border as an illegal migrant is precarious. Increased security around cities such as San Diego and El Paso has forced migrants into the desert and mountains, leading to increasing numbers dying from heat exhaustion and dehydration. It’s worth noting that the numbers of children quoted in the report as attempting to cross the border represent the total apprehended, rather than the total attempting to cross. Many of them – some as young as four – aren’t trying to sneak across but are simply showing up and announcing themselves.
There are a variety of explanations for this trend. Many of the children say they’re attempting to escape violence and poverty. Others are trying to reunite with relatives who made the journey north before them. There are also suggestions that the number of children attempting to cross has increased since the US government issued a memorandum in June 2012 directing border and immigration services to practise prosecutorial discretion towards individuals who moved to the USA as children and are currently undocumented.
Under US law, the Department of Homeland Security can only immediately deport children documented as being from Canada or Mexico. The remainder are turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. Many of these children are temporarily housed in emergency shelters in border states such as Arizona and Texas, before being transferred to other installations in southern USA.
However, the authorities are struggling to cope, and many children are released to relatives pending a court appearance. The vast majority don’t show up. Describing the situation as a humanitarian emergency, President Obama has requested that Congress release US$3.7billion in emergency funds and allow unaccompanied minors caught illegally crossing the border to be fast-tracked. The USA has also tried to persuade Central American governments to deter young people from attempting to cross into the USA.
This sudden increase in the number of children crossing the border is adding to an already toxic debate in the USA about illegal immigration, with right-wing pundits accusing President Obama of deliberately ‘dumping’ children in Arizona as punishment for the state’s recent attempts to harden attitudes towards illegal immigrants.
The Obama administration has long been accused of being too soft on illegal and undocumented migrants in particular and of undermining border security in general. This political debate isn’t likely to end soon and, in itself, contributes to this particular border story.
This story was published in the August 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine