Peter Savodnik on the border crisis nobody wants to solve for The Free Press.
Daniel, from Honduras (left) wants to be a mechanic in NJ. Richard from Venezuela (right) is a pipe fitter who lost his middle finger in an accident. Both are seeking menial labor in the U.S. (All photos by Sergio Flores for The Free Press)

A Report from the Southern Border: ‘We Want Biden to Win’

Peter Savodnik on the crisis nobody wants to solve.

MATAMOROS, MEXICO — On a recent Wednesday, Daniel Cortez, a 45-year-old mechanic from Honduras, and Richard Betancourt, a 46-year-old pipe fitter from Venezuela, were holding court at the migrants camp here on the northernmost edge of Mexico.

They sat in bridge chairs under a tarp and a drizzly, gray-white sky. Beyond the tents, past the field strewn with fast-food containers and old sneakers and discarded Barbies, there was a slope leading down to the Rio Grande, and on the other side of the river, Brownsville, Texas: razor wire, Humvees, Americans in camouflage.

Cortez told me he has been waiting three and a half months to cross the border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had yet to schedule his interview. There was a long line of migrants ahead of him, and, at this point, he was just hoping to get into the U.S. before November 2024. 

When I pointed toward America and asked who they wanted to be president, Cortez answered quickly. “I want Biden to win,” he said. 

Betancourt agreed. “If it’s Trump, it doesn’t matter how much I work or want to work,” he said. “They won’t let me in.”

“I want Biden to win,” Daniel Cortez told The Free Press.

Most American voters probably agree with their assessment.

Immigration is now voters’ No. 1 issue: a February Monmouth poll showed that 84 percent of Americans view it as a serious or somewhat serious problem. A March Gallup poll indicated that immigration is the top “unprompted issue” on voters’ minds, with 68 percent of Americans disapproving of Joe Biden’s handling of the border.

A recent Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Trump ahead of Biden by almost 1 percentage point (by contrast, Biden held a nearly six-point lead at this point in 2020), and the former president leads the president in every battleground state—and he is pounding away at illegal immigration. “This is a Joe Biden invasion,” Trump said while he was visiting the border in Texas, in late February. “It’s a Biden invasion.”

Republican strategist Scott Reed told me: “It’s got everyone in a fever, and it doesn’t look like the fever’s going to break until the election is over.”

Trash piles up at a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico. Asylum seekers wait for their appointments with Customs and Border Patrol in this encampment.

Trump’s motto was Build the Wall, but his record on illegal immigration was mixed. He slashed legal immigration by making it harder to get a green card or visa, but failed to stop migrants from crossing the border. Deportations under Trump ticked up a little—to 337,000, in 2018—but they remained below where they were at the height of the Obama era, in 2013, when more than 438,000 were forcibly returned to their home countries.

But when he assumed power, Joe Biden was determined to reverse course on what he and Democratic elites viewed as a reactionary and xenophobic policy that, in their eyes, amounted to an abandonment of American ideals. 

There would be no talk about “invasions” or “shithole countries” from this White House. Biden and his team started strategizing about how to undo, as he put it, “the last administration’s somewhat draconian policies” and handling the migrants more “humanely.” 

On January 20, 2021, the day Biden assumed office, he introduced legislation meant to provide undocumented migrants with a pathway to citizenship. He was trying to communicate—to the migrants, to his base, to Mexico—that this was no longer Trump’s America, that outsiders were welcome.

But that legislation never got anywhere, even though his party narrowly controlled the House and Senate. The president chose to spend his political capital elsewhere—on the Inflation Reduction Act—because, among other things, Democrats just didn’t care about the border that much, and they feared that talking about it, worrying about it, sounded Trumpish. 

Roughly 2 million people have entered the United States each year since Biden was inaugurated—the highest levels since the U.S. Border Patrol was created in 1924.

Meantime, the number of illegal migrants soared, with roughly 2 million people entering the United States each year starting in 2021—the highest levels since the U.S. Border Patrol was created in 1924. This was accompanied by a seemingly endless stream of viral videos showing border agents being overrun by migrants, turning the border into a political hot potato. 

Now, Democrats find themselves in a quandary of their own making. With border crossings at a record high—amid claims of child trafficking, fentanyl, and gangs all now coming into the U.S.—the party seems unable to reverse course. Especially with the party’s progressive faction pushing back on any attempts to secure the border. 

“I can’t figure these people out,” said Democratic strategist James Carville, referring to progressives who had complicated the recent Biden border deal with congressional Republicans. “I think the identity of the far left is loonier than a toon.”

Left-wing members of the party won’t even let you say the words “border security,” Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar told me. 

Cuellar, whose congressional district stretches from Texas’s border with Mexico to San Antonio, was one of 14 Democrats who recently voted for a GOP resolution condemning the administration’s “open borders policies.” 

I asked whether Democrats were afraid of being called racist. “That could be part of the calculation,” said Cuellar, who is Hispanic.

“The Democrats don’t have a policy, and they don’t have a majority of voters behind them,” Will Hurd, a Republican former congressman whose district encompassed most of Texas’s border with Mexico, told me. 

“It seems like nobody cares, this administration especially,” said Joe Martinez, who’s been sheriff of Val Verde County for 15 years, about the border crisis.

“They’re being driven by a very narrow part of their base that does actually believe in open borders, and they’re not listening to Democratic mayors and sheriffs,” Hurd added.

That includes Joe Martinez, who’s been sheriff of Val Verde County for 15 years. 

“I don’t think that anybody wants to come to the table to fix this problem,” Martinez told me. He told me he invited congressional Democrats to tour the border, but none had taken him up on his offer. “It seems like nobody cares, this administration especially,” Martinez said.

Elon Musk, Donald Trump, and other critics on the right insist Democrats are willing to take a short-term political hit in exchange for a long-term benefit: allowing millions of future Democratic voters into the country.

Although Biden recently said in a White House briefing, “I am willing to make significant compromises on the border,” Martinez, like most everyone, was skeptical. 

“If the problem was fixed, there’d be nothing else to talk about or complain about,” he said.

Donald Trump, Elon Musk, and any number of other critics on the right insist Democrats are willing to take a short-term political hit in exchange for long-term strategic benefit: allowing millions of future Democratic voters into the country. (This ignores the fact that more and more Latinos support Republicans, and it assumes that politicians can plot electoral outcomes 10 or 15 years in the future—long after many of them will have retired.) At the very least, Republicans say, the “Biden border crisis” will sway the outcome of the 2030 census, which counts citizens and noncitizens, and will affect redistricting, control of Congress, and presidential elections. 

Seth Stodder, a senior policy adviser on border security, said both parties have blamed the other for being unwilling to resolve the problem. But now “those criticisms… have just hardened into party orthodoxies.”

Democrats, for their part, counter that Republican presidents and lawmakers have refused to do anything about the border—for decades—because their big-business benefactors want cheap labor provided by illegal migrants. The only reason Republicans are increasingly open to harsher, anti-immigration policies is because those businesses have started outsourcing their labor overseas, Margaret Peters, a UCLA political scientist and the author of Trading Barriers: Immigration and the Remaking of Globalization, has argued.

“For years, both parties have exchanged accusations about why the other was seemingly unwilling to resolve the problems at the border,” Seth Stodder, a senior policy adviser on border security under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told me. 

“There was always probably some, but not much, truth to Republicans’ claim that Democrats were hoping migrants would become future Democrats, and there was definitely some truth to Democratic claims that while Republicans talked tough about border security, in reality, they did little to stem the flows of cheap migrant labor that GOP-supporting businesses craved,” he added. “But the facts and political realities have changed, and it’s unclear that either of those criticisms actually applies anymore. They’ve just hardened into party orthodoxies.”

Christian Mohammed, 24, and Alejandra Falcon, 26, both from Venezuela, met at a bus station in Panama and headed north.

You are supposed to say “credible fear,” or temor creíble, in Spanish, when you arrive at the border. It seemed like all the migrants I spoke to knew that.

When I asked Alejandra Falcon what her temor creíble was, she said never seeing her daughter again.

It was four in the afternoon the day Alejandra left Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, with her younger brother, Lionel. She couldn’t remember the exact date, just that it was a little more than eight months ago.

The bus went west and north into a long, winding night, and eventually, they had to change buses, and then they had to walk, and then they had to take a van. Many vans, actually.

That was how they crossed into Colombia, through the jungles and hills, snaking through the one-lane roads in the Darién Gap, which connects South America and Central America, on to Panama City.

Alejandra, 26, was lucky: no one raped her or stole her backpack. There were no flash floods. Neither she nor Lionel, 23, got yellow fever or broke any bones fording rivers, all of which was common and could mean death.

At a bus station in Panama, Alejandra met Christian Mohammed, 24, who was also Venezuelan and also headed north. 

“We Venezuelans find each other everywhere,” Alejandra told me. 

“We’re like a family here,” Alejandra, 26, said of life at the camp. “We know everyone. We take care of each other.”

They became a couple, and—after a total of four buses, 20 vans, and six weeks on the road traversing more than 1,400 miles—they arrived at the migrants camp in Matamoros. Lionel moved into one tent; Alejandra and Christian moved into another.

Then, downloading the CBP app for migrants, Alejandra signed up for an interview with a border agent.

She waited for America to email her back. The email that would tell her when and where to go. This seemed to be what everyone at the migrant camp did.

She was okay with waiting. The camp was dank and muddy, and the tents were mildewy, and the smells from the porta potties collided with the women frying chicken and potatoes. But, for now, it was home. Couples had met here. Babies had been made. 

“We’re like a family here,” she said. “We know everyone. We take care of each other.” 

Asylum seekers wait for their appointments with Customs and Border Patrol in this encampment in Matamoros, Mexico.

Alejandra was like so many of the camp’s 200 or so other migrants—from broken countries with runaway inflation, deep-seated corruption, and rampant gang violence—who had come looking for something better. 

But to get into America, you couldn’t say that. 

When the app told you it was your turn, the correct thing to say to the blue-uniformed CBP agent on the bridge spanning the Rio Grande and connecting Mexico to the United States was credible fear

If you say it, the Americans let you in. You don’t need proof.

That’s because American law grants asylum to those fleeing political persecution or violence, but not to those wanting to leave failed socialist states or backward economies.

After declaring you were seeking asylum, a CBP official would likely give you a “notice to appear” at a later date in an immigration court. After that, you were free to go wherever you wanted until your day in court.

But the court backlog is so bad, it takes between five to nine years before you get your notice to appear and a judge is able to determine whether your fear was, in fact, credible—assuming immigration officials could find you after all that time.

And where did the millions of migrants go while they waited? 

Cuellar had an answer to that: “The Abbott Express, or some nonprofit, will fly them to other places.”

Petronra Diaz Ruiz and her daughter, Maria Gomez Diaz, pose for a portrait at a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico.

He was referring to Texas governor Greg Abbott. Over the past 18 months, Abbott has bused more than 90,000 migrants to progressive sanctuary cities like New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Denver, and Los Angeles—leading to a billowing crisis in those cities that has prompted Democratic mayors to attack a Democratic White House for its inaction.

Now, the mayors of Chicago, New York, and Denver are saying they’re out of space, with migrants being temporarily housed in shelters, police stations, schools, airports, and buses. 

New York City mayor Eric Adams is reconsidering whether New York should remain a sanctuary city—where local laws are meant to protect undocumented migrants from deportation or detention. 

“This issue will destroy New York,” Adams said in September. 

Dianna Jimenez, 3, poses alongside her mother, Maria Gomez Hernandez, and her little brother, Francisco Ivan Jimenez, at a migrant camp.

But now the situation looks unsolvable. The Venezuelan economy is in free fall, prompting millions to migrate north, and the major political parties have been crippled—with progressives fighting tooth and nail any Democrat who works with Republicans, and Republicans having been instructed by Trump not to work with Democrats and actually accomplish anything. 

This was the lesson of the collapse of the recent immigration bill. Despite conservatives, led by GOP senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, having squeezed tons of border-security concessions out of the White House, Republicans ultimately killed the measure—after Trump came out against it.

All of which is fomenting an anti-Biden backlash in big cities with large numbers of black and Latino voters. They wonder why it is that Democrats seem to care more about migrants than them, doling out free healthcare and lodging while they contend with shoddy public transportation, busted schools, a crime spike. (See, for example, Olivia Reingold’s recent piece on the black Chicagoans suing Chicago over the migrant crisis.)

American law grants asylum to those fleeing political persecution or violence, but migrants don’t need to prove it. All they need to do is say they have a “credible fear.”

Meanwhile, the migrants at the camp have seen the images on their phones of people like them—in other camps, swimming across the river, climbing through razor wire, trying to outrun CBP agents on horseback. 

They told me they aren’t scared of whatever lies ahead. They are propelled by a vague hope that somehow they’d get in. Lionel, Alejandra’s brother, shrugged when I asked whether he cared that many Americans don’t want him in the country.

He said he wanted to work in a nightclub in Louisville, Kentucky. He had a friend there, and he’d heard the people were “very American”—friendly. “No matter what, it’s going to be roses, because it’ll be better than where we came from,” he said.

Lionel Falcon, 23, shows the tattoos on his chest, the birth years of his parents.

Alejandra wasn’t worried about what she’d do in America either. She was mainly concerned about getting there before Election Day. 

If that doesn’t happen, then the most important thing is for Biden to stay in the White House, she said. 

“If he doesn’t win,” she said, “I can’t imagine what will happen.”

Should America Shut Its Borders? That’s the subject of our next live debate, April 11 in Dallas. Best-selling author Ann Coulter and Sohrab Ahmari, founder and editor of Compact magazine, will argue yes. They will face off against Nick Gillespie, editor-at-large for Reason magazine, and Cenk Uygur, founder of The Young Turks. Bari will moderate. 

Join them and other free-thinking readers of The Free Press April 11 at the Majestic Theatre in Dallas, Texas. Get your tickets to the event, and to the after-party—there are still a few left!—here

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