A sudden surge in migration across the U.S.-Mexican border has presented U.S. President Joe Biden with one of the toughest political challenges of his new administration. In the month of March alone, U.S. Border Patrol agents encountered 172,000 unauthorized migrants, primarily from Central America and Mexico. That was an increase of more than 70 percent from February and a 20-year high (although a fair number of these migrants may have sought to cross more than once and been double counted as a result).
Politicians and pundits have been quick to label the surge in migration a “border crisis.” But although the numbers are higher this time around, Biden is hardly the first president to deal with an influx of migrants at the southern border. President Barack Obama did so in 2014 and again in 2016, as did President Donald Trump in 2019. Each time, the United States, overtaxed and underresourced, has struggled to handle the flow of people headed north from Central America and desperate to get into the United States.
As this cyclical pattern suggests, the real crisis isn’t at the U.S.-Mexican border but rather in Central America. Crime, violence, corruption, and economic devastation in the region have propelled people to the border, and U.S. policies—during Democratic and Republican administrations alike—have failed to deal adequately with these persistent push factors. The United States and Central American countries need a new approach to migration—one that addresses the drivers of these boom-and-bust cycles and helps manage the overlapping crises thousands of