The recent arrival of asylum seekers in Chicago is just one example of a broader humanitarian crisis that has grown over decades. Growing numbers of people migrate to the U.S. for various reasons—political dysfunction, war, natural disasters made worse by economic instability, gender inequality, violence and much more. To find new opportunities and safety in the U.S. migrants endanger their lives in treacherous journeys with aspirations of a better life. Many questions are left unanswered as Chicago and other cities receiving new arrivals set off on a steep learning curve to better understand the current situation both locally and internationally.
The Weekly interviewed Caroline Tracey and Todd Miller for their perspectives. Tracey is a writer focused on migration, and the environment in the U.S. Southwest, Mexico and the borderlands. In 2023, she received the Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Fellowship in Journalism and Human and Civil Rights. She holds a PhD in Geography from the University of California, Berkeley. Miller is an author and independent journalist. His books include Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security and Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security. He has fifteen years of experience working and writing about U.S.-Mexico border issues and writes a weekly column for The Border Chronicle.
What is the difference between asylum seekers, migrants, immigrants, and refugees?
Tracey: There is overlap and blurriness between these terms, but here’s how I see the breakdown: A migrant is an individual who is moving from one place to another. Migrants are both emigrants from somewhere (the Latin prefix -e is “from”) and, eventually immigrants to another place; those terms would be used contextually—you can be an emigrant from Nicaragua and an immigrant to Chicago, though we also commonly in say English that someone is an “immigrant from Mexico,” because the destination is implied to be the United States. So, migrant is an umbrella term that captures movement. But it doesn’t specify why people move.
A refugee is a person who is fleeing their home country—whether because of violence, war, persecution, a natural disaster, or another cause that has forced them to leave. In practice, the distinction between a migrant and a refugee is not always easy to observe: many people will explain that they left their home country seeking a better life, which sounds like they are an economic migrant who made the choice to leave, but as you talk to them more, you learn that there were also factors compelling them to leave, such as violence in their community, direct threats to their family, drought, etc. Additionally, U.S. law makes the distinction more complicated. For the U.S., refugee status is something that is applied for and granted from within one’s home country or a country of residence that is not the U.S. There’s an annual cap of 125,000 refugees, and only people in specific countries facing certain human rights crises are eligible—in recent years many people who have received refugee status in the U.S. have come from Syria, Sudan, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—and you have to get referred by the United Nations. In contrast, asylum is something that you only seek at a U.S. border or from within the U.S. So what’s confusing is that people who are seeking asylum would be rightly referred to as refugees but legally they are not refugees, they are asylum-seekers.
What is happening in Venezuela and other Latin American countries that is driving migration to the U.S.?
Tracey: There are a variety of factors that are pushing people to the U.S. Venezuela is experiencing the worst economic crisis of its history, and at least 4.6 million people have fled the country since 2015, according to data gathered in 2021. They are facing hyperinflation (meaning that their currency is worth very little), starvation due to poverty and food shortages, and inadequate medical care leading to preventable disease and decreased life expectancy. (Editor’s note: The U.S. and allied countries have also been placing sanctions on Venezuela since 2005, which are widely considered to have contributed to the economic collapse.) In other Latin American countries, many people are fleeing gang violence—often, people leave after threats to them or after murders of family members—and more recently, fleeing repressive governments in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Guatemala.
There has also been an increase in migration due to climatic factors, such as droughts and hurricanes. People are coming not just from Latin America but from all over the world—a representative from the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector recently told me that their apprehensions last year included people from nearly 100 countries, including countries in Africa and South Asia. In Chicago, there are also numerous Russians, Ukranians, Chechnyans and Central Asians. Many of those people travel all the way across Central America and Mexico to get to the U.S.
Miller: There is a great book, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America by veteran journalist, Juan Gonzalez. The book places Latin America and the Caribbean in the long view of U.S. policy and dominance in the region, including countless military and economic interventions over the last centuries and decades. In this there have been coups, attempted coups, occupations, and much extraction of wealth (precious resources), and Gonzalez shows convincingly that people will gravitate to the places where the wealth has been transferred. Now you can apply this differently in different countries, all of which have different situations, and different states of domestic politics, which often include grave incidents of oppression and corruption.
What happens to migrants once they arrive at the border?
Tracey: This is complicated and frequently changes. It varies by nationality and other factors like family status. Some people, especially single men, are detained and deported. Others are eventually temporarily released into the U.S. to await an asylum hearing. Generally, Customs and Border Protection partners with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help people get to the location where their relatives or contacts in the U.S. live. A complex set of rules and bureaucracy oversees work authorization during the wait, and so many people aren’t authorized to work while they wait. This is meant to be a deterrence measure, but in practice, it causes significant hardship to people that are in a very vulnerable situation. An article in The New York Times, titled, ‘Who Gets In? A Guide to America’s Chaotic Border Rules’ explains this further.
Miller: The U.S. border begins long before people reach the actual international boundary. For example, the U.S. has assisted Mexico, as well as other countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, in its own border fortification via training programs, resources, and money. This is a key enforcement strategy. According to officials, they are “pushing out” the border to stop people long before they get to the U.S. And then once people reach the U.S. frontier, they will encounter the most fortified border in U.S. history in terms of armed border agents, walls and barriers, surveillance technology, and a vast detention and expulsion system. This whole enforcement system is deployed in the logic of a deterrence strategy that has existed for more than thirty years—designed to force border crossers to cross in hostile territories, but also works on multiple levels including forcing people to navigate difficult bureaucracies, particularly asylum seekers for the last several years.
How will migration play into the presidential election?
Tracey: Both parties are very much in favor of border security which means there are a lot of options that are off the table. We saw this very clearly when Biden promised to build “not one more foot” of wall, and yet has now re-started border wall construction in South Texas. For a long time, Congress has had a hard time passing immigration reform.
For instance, the DREAM Act, which would have given a pathway to citizenship to individuals who came to the U.S. as undocumented minors, failed to pass Congress numerous times. Instead, Obama created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which only provides those undocumented individuals who came as minors with temporary work authorization—and has now been struck down, so people who have not previously held DACA cannot apply. As in the case with DACA, because the legislature fails to respond to immigration, the courts end up making a lot of key decisions. So, even more than the presidential debates, the Supreme Court and the federal circuit courts are the places to keep an eye when it comes to immigration decisions.
Miller: As it has been for the last several election cycles, it should be a super important issue for candidates. I expect, if history is any indication, that fantastical narratives will propel the national discourse into the stratosphere. By this I mean narratives like the claim that there is an “open borders policy” with Biden, narratives that have no basis in reality.
One quick Google search shows that budgets for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) under Biden in 2023 were at $29.8 billion, the highest ever enacted. This budget funds the Border Patrol, surveillance technology, walls and barriers and their maintenance, the detention and deportation regime, among other things. Voters should be able to differentiate the nuts and bolts of a large border and immigration enforcement apparatus, with hot air. And there will be clearly a lot of hot air.
What do people need to know about migration that is not often, or at all, shown in the media?
Tracey: One important piece of context for the asylum situation right now is that in the past, it was possible to seek asylum at a port of entry: you walked up to the international border and stated that you were looking for asylum. Around 2016, Border Patrol representatives started preventing people from doing this, which pushed people to cross the border between ports of entry, which is illegal. This created the perception that many more people are crossing the border illegally than before, and most single adults are detained and deported rather than given a chance to seek asylum.
Another important thing to know is that many people who seek asylum have to spend time in detention—detention isn’t just for people who have been accused of a crime or who are awaiting deportation. It’s “civil” detention, but the conditions are not good. This wasn’t always the case—it was the result of federal legal changes in the 1990s that aimed to deter asylum-seekers from coming to the U.S. It’s very expensive to U.S. taxpayers. There isn’t a good reason to keep so many people in detention for so long, and there are financially efficient and more humane alternatives that are shown to work just as well.
Finally, I think that one thing that many of us may not think about is just how hard it is to get one’s life established in the U.S. For instance, it’s very hard to find an apartment building that will rent to you if you don’t have a credit score, which people who are new to the U.S. don’t have. I’ve visited a building in a Chicago suburb where nearly all the residents were immigrants, because of the simple fact that a credit score was not required and word got around through group chats on apps like WhatsApp and Telegram.
Miller: Few people know, for example, that the U.S.-Mexico border is the world’s deadliest land border as the International Organization for Migration wrote in September, or that the Biden administration gave out a record number of contracts to private industry—for border and immigration enforcement in 2023. That the border brutalizes people while simultaneously being profitable for companies who also influence policy with campaign contributions and lobbying.
What does the situation mean for immigration policy going forward?
Tracey: There are more people on the move globally than ever before, and yet there’s also a simultaneous focus on obstructing movement in the name of “security.” In the U.S., this has been the case especially since 9/11. I’m not particularly optimistic that lawmakers will displace “security” as their focus, but I think that as individuals we can do it. What would it mean to imagine policies around promoting safe passage instead of barricades? Why is it so important to “protect” the United States—if what we’re protecting is liberty and prosperity, why can’t those things be shared?
Miller: Since deterrence has been central to U.S. immigration and border policy for thirty years, I can only imagine that it will continue going forward. This not only means the fortification of urban areas of the U.S. border, that forces crossers into desolate places where death or suffering is a threat, but also what Border Patrol calls its Consequence Delivery System, which means enacting punishment on people who cross without authorization such as imprisonment. There is a trend for increasing barriers for asylum seekers whether it be Title 42 (pandemic era rapid expulsion policy phased out in May), Remain in Mexico (people have to stay in Mexico awaiting asylum hearings), or the seemingly innocuous yet glitchy and impossible CBP One app.
The other trend that goes hand in hand with this is the externalization of the border, what officials call pushing the border out as far as it can go into Mexico, Central America, Panama, Colombia, and throughout the Caribbean, to name some places. The sort of border narratives that are in the mainstream media, and hence; the national discourse keep a status quo in line, but the narratives really need to shift in order for us to have a much improved and authentic conversation about it. This would be a good year to do just that.
Alma Campos is a senior editor with the Weekly and Wendy Wei is the Weekly’s immigration editor covering solidarity between communities of color.