In This Episode
Welcome to What a Day’s How We Got Here, a new weekend series where Hysteria’s Erin Ryan and Offline’s Max Fisher pose a question about the week’s biggest headlines and comb through history to answer it. This week: why does it feel like the souther border is always in crisis? How does immigration enforcement distort our view of what’s actually happening? And what lessons about our fragile national identity can we learn from a discontinued California highway sign?
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Max Fisher: Erin. I feel like I’m getting déjà vu. There’s a big crisis at the southern border. Voters are freaking out.
[clip of unidentified person] Everything about life in Texas cities have been changed by this crisis.
Max Fisher: There are wrenching photos of families stuck in terrible conditions.
[clip of unidentified news reporter] Hundreds and hundreds of migrant men and families huddling around campfires or sleeping next to the border wall.
Max Fisher: Politicians are grandstanding about getting even harsher.
[clip of Donald Trump] They’re poisoning the blood of our country. That’s what they’ve done.
Max Fisher: All of which feels like something that has been happening every couple of years for, like, my entire life.
Erin Ryan: Yeah, sometimes I turn on the news and I feel like I’m watching a rerun of the same crisis happening over and over again. It’s like the Groundhog Day of policy failures. And it has an immeasurable human toll. [music break].
Max Fisher: I’m Max Fisher.
Erin Ryan: And I’m Erin Ryan, and This is How We Got Here, a new What a Day series where Max and I explore a big question behind this week’s headlines and tell a story that answers that question.
Max Fisher: And our question this week. Why does it always feel like the southern border is in this crisis that never actually gets solved? And the story that we think points us toward the answer is about a very famous highway sign, um maybe the most controversial highway sign in American history.
Erin Ryan: So part of how the show is going to work is we are going to divide our big question into three smaller questions. And the first is, what do we actually mean by border crisis?
Max Fisher: Okay. So to answer this, the highway sign, Erin, do you remember the notorious so-called immigrant crossing signs?
Erin Ryan: Mm hmm.
Max Fisher: These big yellow highway signs. But it was an outline of a family running, and they were dragging a little girl. It was very dramatic for a highway sign. I feel like anyone who was in California in the ’90s will remember it. Um. If you haven’t seen it, Google it. You are going to be shocked by how um, how intense it is for a highway sign. So these popped up in 1990 and they were actually only in one very small area. They were in a tiny stretch of Interstate five, right by San Diego near the US-Mexico border. There were only actually ten of these signs ever made. And what had happened was that in the late ’80s, there was a big increase in enforcement around the southern border against unauthorized border crossings. It pushed a lot of the crossings onto I-5, and some people were getting hit by car traffic. So they put up these signs to alert people to what was happening. And everybody in America absolutely lost their minds freaking out about these signs, because even though they were only in a small area, it made it feel to people like there was this out of control crisis that the border was getting so overrun that there were now highway signs about it. And it became this big national controversy that actually led to the first time that the border was what we would now call militarized. Bill Clinton came in.
[clip of Bill Clinton] I’ve asked the members of the cabinet to create, for the first time, a national detention and removal plan to dramatically increase the identification and removal of the portable illegal aliens.
Max Fisher: There was a huge national controversy over immigration, and he responded to it by sending, Janet Reno, the attorney general, down to the border. And they launched, um it’s some kind of dystopian names. Operations hold the line, safeguard and gatekeeper.
Erin Ryan: Mm hmm.
Max Fisher: Um. First of all, calling them military operations is, like really–
Erin Ryan: They sound like mad Max villain names, to be honest.
Max Fisher: The thing is, is that was the message that it sent. Is it sent the message that the border is this like mad Max zone? And we’re going to clamp down with military force. This is when they first started putting up double and triple fencing, and they really increased the number of border guards. But what happened was that arrivals at the border and unauthorized crossings didn’t actually go down. All of this enforcement, just number one, sent the message to people that the border is in crisis. It’s out of control. So everyone has to freak out. And then it funneled all of these arrivals into much more dangerous areas to cross. Um. And so a lot more people who were crossing faced really terrible conditions and deaths, I think, doubled on the border. So conditions got much worse for immigrants. The number of arrivals did not go down. And the sense of crisis absolutely spiraled in America over immigration. And I think that this is a really telling story, because this feels to me like the first big cycle of something that we have been doing ever since, including right now.
Erin Ryan: Mm hmm. Yeah. Right now things are again kind of heating up at the border, so to speak. I mean, last week there was a Supreme Court decision that enabled the Biden administration to go to the Texas border, the border between Texas and Mexico, and clear some of the razor wire that local law enforcement authorities have been putting up to deter migrants. On the U.S side by the way, the razor wire is like after they would have touched U.S. soil. All it really does is maim them after they’re already here, which seems incredibly cruel, like immigration security theater. But the Supreme Court said Biden administration, go ahead, clear that out. They don’t get to keep doing that. But Texas has refused to comply. Texas has refused to comply. And in fact, they’re erecting more razor wire on the U.S side of the Rio Grande as of us taping this show. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick on Monday even said we will continue, we will not stop. If they cut it, we will replace it. So that’s where we are at right now in the standoff between the federal government and the–
Max Fisher: Well it–
Erin Ryan: –state government of Texas.
Max Fisher: And it the reason this makes me think about these notorious 1990 highway signs is that it really feels like an echo into it. And the part of how we got to this current crisis is there have been a few rounds of really intensive enforcement around the border where, um not just under Trump but under the Biden administration, there was a lot of enforcement at big crossing points that have funneled all of the arrivals into a small number of spots. So now people look at photos from this small number of spots, and they see huge crowds of people waiting to cross or waiting to register. So it feels like more of a crisis. There’s much more intensive enforcement around things like remain in Mexico. There’s much more warehousing. I don’t know if you remember the Del Rio Bridge clearing, where there was a large number of um, Haitian asylum seekers who were sheltering under a bridge because because of all of this enforcement, they were forced to wait under this bridge to wait to cross. So it looks much more uncontrolled. People freak out. That leads to demand for more enforcement, which leads to things like what Texas is doing. So it’s this cycle of like enforcement creates a sense of crisis without actually reducing the arrivals. And in a way that makes the conditions for the people arriving so much worse.
Erin Ryan: And we can’t pretend this is happening completely in a vacuum, like there are extenuating circumstances that are leading to influxes of immigrants. It can be the U.S. being bad at handling the people that are coming to the border. It can be conditions in the countries of origins of the people seeking asylum or seeking to come here. And all of those things are cyclical, like we live in a global society, you know, sometimes countries face hardships, and the southern border in the U.S. is in many cases an attractive place for people to go. And in the meantime, our government is not effectively managing that influx. So this cycle enforcement leading to backlash leading to crisis, leading to backlash, has sort of defined politics along the southern border for decades, if not generations. So what’s going on? How did we get here?
Max Fisher: I think that brings us to this second question of the show. Why do we keep falling into this cycle if we know where it’s going to lead?
Erin Ryan: Well, because we keep making bad policies and we keep trying the same bad policies over and over again. You were talking about the late ’80s, right? When there was a sudden influx in migrants, which led to the crackdown that the Clinton administration did in the ’90s. During that time, during the late ’80s, the budget for INS, which was the precursor to ICE and Customs and Border Patrol, quadrupled. It went up so much during that period of time. And it was one of those situations where an increase in law enforcement led to the illusion that the increase in law enforcement was justified. We see this in a lot of neighborhoods that are overpoliced. So sometimes you see police departments try to justify an increased police presence in specific neighborhoods, usually neighborhoods full of Black and Brown people, by saying that the reason they need more police there is because there are more police encounters in those neighborhoods. But really, it just means that that place is already being policed more heavily than other places. It doesn’t mean there’s more crime, it just means there’s more policing. So that sort of pattern along the border is something that we should we should look at. That can be instructive. Like we need more border patrol because there are more and more encounters between border patrol and migrants. Really, sometimes that is just a testament to the fact that it seems like there are more encounters with migrants because there is more border patrol and people are looking harder. There has been more of, an increase in emphasis on technology. In the early 2000s, we doubled the number of Border Patrol agents between like 2004 and 2010.
Max Fisher: Mmm right.
Erin Ryan: And of course, we’re going to find more if we’re looking for it, if we’re putting out more manpower.
Max Fisher: The kind of enforcement we’re doing makes it feel like the answer is more enforcement.
Erin Ryan: Exactly.
Max Fisher: It’s actually really similar too to the way that we deal with the housing crisis and the number of unhoused people in cities where the big policy response is to crowd them into a small number of places, which means that then everyone else in those neighborhood freaks out because it feels like much more of a crisis to them, or to do encampment clearings, which again feels like a big crisis, but never actually solves the underlying problem of people not having someplace to live.
Erin Ryan: Mm hmm. And and it’s something that we see in law enforcement. Law enforcement, I guess failing is often rewarded with more money. Um. And and you wouldn’t really see any other public services being rewarded with more money if they continually demonstrate that they’re not meeting their goals, like a teacher for example. If increasing numbers of their students were unable to pass standardized tests, we wouldn’t be like, we got to quadruple your budget. Um. And that’s what’s happening with law enforcement and border protection.
Max Fisher: Well it makes the Texas fight feel really illustrative to me, because Texas Governor Greg Abbott knows that the kind of extreme enforcement he’s doing is not actually going to stop people from arriving at the border. That’s not the point of it, right?
[clip of Texas Governor Greg Abbott] This is an invasion by people we don’t know who they are or where they’re coming from, or the danger they may pose.
Max Fisher: The point of it is to create a big political crisis. So on some level, politicians know that enforcement creates political crisis, doesn’t actually solve the problem, but at the same time, like to be fair, arrivals really are way, way up at the southern border. And I think if you look at the last 30 or 40 years, um administrations have tried a lot to, even as they’re following into this enforcement cycle, have tried to do a lot to address the kind of long term, I don’t want to call it a problem, because I don’t think it necessarily–
Erin Ryan: Issue.
Max Fisher: –is a problem. Right?
Erin Ryan: Concern.
Max Fisher: Right. Where the fact of people show arriving at the southern border in large numbers, there have been a lot of initiatives to do, like economic development in Central America under Reagan, with the idea being that that would reduce the need for people to come to the southern border. Um. There have also been like very harsh, extreme versions of this that I don’t care for, but like remain in Mexico that are meant to prevent people from getting to the southern border at the first place. But none of these have ever actually worked.
Erin Ryan: No. And the arc of history is not bending toward justice. In this case, it is definitely bending toward more and more cruel crackdowns that that harm people. Um. In the ’40s, actually, during World War two, we had a policy, um a really big guest worker policy. I mean, we needed workers. We needed people to keep the railroads running. We needed people to make farms work. Because–
Max Fisher: Oh yeah this is the Bracero program?
Erin Ryan: Mm hmm.
[clip of 1940s news clip] This is the vanguard of 1500 Mexicans brought to the states by the Farm Security Administration. Most are laborers, all of them are bachelors.
Erin Ryan: Yeah, because there were so many men, American men that were overseas fighting during World War Two.
Max Fisher: Oh.
Erin Ryan: And after everybody came back, you know, people who had been working the jobs that have been vacated by the American men were asked to politely get back in the kitchen, go back to Mexico. You know, the Bracero program stopped being as needed from the perspective of the government. But at that point, there were so many workers that were coming in as part of the program that people came in extra legally during that time. And it got to a point where in 1954 and I this is I cannot believe this is an official name for a government program.
Max Fisher: Oh no.
Erin Ryan: But the US government launched something that they called Operation Wetback.
Max Fisher: No.
Erin Ryan: Yes.
Max Fisher: Oh my God.
Erin Ryan: And that involved them rounding up 4 million Mexican workers and sending them back to Mexico. Uh. Bracero, the program that enabled workers to come on guest worker permits was sundowned in 1964. And that was sort of the last time that we were nice, despite the fact that we gave it an incredibly offensive name, um during those ensuing decades, until things got to crack down stage. There were always proposals along side of immigration control that involved amnesty, that involved, uh cracking down on employers rather than sending individual migrants to jail. You know, in 1986, something like 2.7 million Americans who were here already.
Max Fisher: Wow.
Erin Ryan: Um. Who were undocumented, were granted amnesty um by the Reagan administration.
[clip of 1980s news clip] President Reagan did sign the sweeping new immigration reform act today. Millions of illegal aliens will be eligible for amnesty, and will be able to apply for legal residency status, no questions asked.
Erin Ryan: And after that, for a couple years, things were not as wild at the border. But of course, you know, when there was a crisis in Mexico in the late 1980s, it was as though, you know, the amnesty had never happened and the number of border crossings increased.
Max Fisher: So I feel like what that tells us is that even when you have moments when there’s more humane policy towards immigrants, like the Bracero program or Reagan’s amnesty, there’s still just the fact is that large numbers of people show up at the southern border, and there has to be some sort of policy about what happens there, and that that creates when the numbers are up, because there’s some, you know, global event somewhere driving people to the border that that creates this kneejerk pressure for enforcement, even if otherwise our policies are like relatively decent.
Erin Ryan: Mm hmm.
Erin Ryan: That brings us to our third and final question on our journey to understand why the southern border feels perennially in crisis. Surely we are not the first people to see this cycle of enforcement and backlash that never solves anything. So why has no one figured out a way to break out of it?
Max Fisher: I think what this speaks to is that there is this contradiction, kind of at the heart of how we handle immigration in this country, and a contradiction that we don’t want to acknowledge, where on the one hand our laws are ostensibly race neutral and nationality neutral and religion neutral. Right? Ever since the ’60s when we set modern immigration policy.
Erin Ryan: Mm hmm. Before that, a little bit spotty.
Max Fisher: Oh. Super racist. There were explicit racial quotas. And that was what, in the 60s, we were like we need to do away with this. And now it’s going to be anybody can come, at least in theory, if they follow certain procedures, meet certain conditions, and then asylum laws mean anyone who can prove that they meet the conditions for asylum can at least apply for it. But at the same time, there is this real desire from a lot of people in our country to limit or control the rate or kind of social and demographic change that we experience in the country from immigration. I’m not endorsing that by any means.
Erin Ryan: No, I mean, I would not have accused you [laughter] of being like a white nationalist, um but I think, like, let’s just call it what it is, there’s a white nationalist undercurrent that kind of undergirds a lot of the American right currently, and a fear of this country turning into something that they don’t want this country to be. What they want this country to be is a white majority country that is controlled by white men, instead of a country that represents changing global demographics and the changing needs of this country. I’ll also say that a Venn diagram overlap between people who complain, who are terrified, terrified of the wrong types of migrants coming here, and people who are complaining about a worker shortage and saying the solution to that worker shortage is that people need to have more babies is a circle. Like, we could solve problems that we are facing in this country currently if we let more people in who want to come here and work and participate in this country, we could solve multiple problems. But like you said, Max, like this fear, this racist fear is is preventing us from solving a problem. The solution is there. It’s right there.
Max Fisher: Well, I think that I think all of that is true, but I think it would almost be too easy to just put this on the kind of like far right republican, white nationalist fringe. I think that whether we want to admit it or not, there is a like unstated desire in a lot of the country to um, people want to have some kind of say in what the demographics of their community look like. And people don’t think of that as white nationalism. But a resistance to social change is ultimately reflected in wanting to limit immigration or limit certain types of immigration. And that’s how you see we constantly end up with these southern border policies that are designed to at least, uh if not stop outright in the way that Trump wanted to, to limit or constrict the amount of certain kinds of people that come into the country at certain rates. And that is at odds with the way that our immigration system is built, which is supposed to be blind towards race and nationality. And these two things–
Erin Ryan: Yeah.
Max Fisher: –I think our intentioned in a way that we don’t want to acknowledge, because acknowledging that they are intention would mean asking a really big question about what kind of country are we? Are we a country that is completely blind to race and nationality, of origin, in who we are and what our makeup is going to be? I think that we should be. That’s how I feel. But I think that if we’re going to understand why the southern border so often ends up in crisis, I think we have to acknowledge that there is very wide–
Erin Ryan: No.
–resistance outright, like white nationalist resistance to that idea, at least enough discomfort with it that people see large numbers of people at the border who don’t look like them and they get a little uncomfortable.
Erin Ryan: Mm hmm. I also think that from a more cynical perspective, this is also the story of bureaucratic inertia and a ballooning of of specific budgets within the US government. You know, like the INS, which post 9/11 was absorbed by the DHS and that became CPB and ICE and 20 other agencies. And now the budget for it is just absolutely huge. The amount of technology, the amount of resources that are going to it is absolutely huge. Once you have a branch of the government essentially a part of the government that that has that much spending power, that demands that much money, it is really hard to cut down on how many resources are going there because it’s not just money. It’s also, you know, we’ve got tens of thousands of people whose livelihood now depends on working as part of this machinery. And the machinery doesn’t exist if there is no crisis at the border, you know.
Max Fisher: Right yeah.
Erin Ryan: If if there is no crisis, then why do we need this giant apparatus to fight the crisis? We also see that it is very politically convenient for people who are often ineffective at passing meaningful change within their states, or solving meaningful problems. It is a really easy way for people to score political points. Ron DeSantis, easy for him to fill a plane full of migrants and send them to Martha’s Vineyard. Harder for him to fix the fact that housing in the state that he is the governor of in Florida is completely unaffordable. This is a way for uh somebody like a Greg Abbott to get some splashy headlines, to maybe paint over the fact that this side of a month ago, you know, his state’s government was cruelly forcing women to give birth to non-viable fetuses because of the state’s abortion ban. Every time you see somebody making noise about immigration, I think an important question to ask yourself is what are they trying to drown out? Because I don’t believe that people like Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis actually care about solving the problem and fixing the real issue at the core, I think that for many people, it’s a convenient way to get a subject line in a fundraising email.
Max Fisher: I think that’s true. But I mean, the issue is not fake. And there are there are a–
Erin Ryan: No, the issue is–
Max Fisher: –lot of like immigration activists–
Erin Ryan: The issue is not fake but–
Max Fisher: –who are not raising it to–
Erin Ryan: Right.
Max Fisher: –drown things out, but because there are very large numbers of people at the southern border who are really in need.
Erin Ryan: Okay.
Max Fisher: And are really facing like a very severe humanitarian crisis.
Erin Ryan: That’s completely true. But we also have people like Lauren Boebert, who is from Colorado, demanding that the southern border be protected.
[clip of Lauren Boebert] Come to Colorado and you can see that we have an invasion at our southern border. It is everywhere right now.
Erin Ryan: Her southern border is with New Mexico and Oklahoma. You know, during the George W. Bush administration, one of the most vocal Republicans against the fairly humane reforms that George W. Bush was proposing was Jim Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin, which is very far from Mexico. You know, you have people in Iowa during primaries talking about the crisis on the southern border. And I think, yes, of course, you know, we’re all in the same country. But look, I don’t think that very many Iowans have an on the ground feel for what’s going on along the southern border, what needs to be done and how to fix it. And I believe that, you know, yes, on one hand, we need to answer these, like, existential questions about who we are as a country. But on the other hand, I think that there are bad actors who see how valuable stoking this and like increasing the amount of confusion, increasing the amount of fear. They find that very valuable. And so why would they fix it? There are a lot of people who benefit from it not being fixed.
Max Fisher: Well, and to be sympathetic to the past administrations that have tried to fix it, not just in the sense of retooling border policies to be more humane, but in the sense of really trying to find a long term solution to the fact of large numbers of people showing up at the southern border whenever there is a faraway conflict or economic crisis, and people need someplace safe to go. Um. And I think that a reason that that hasn’t succeeded, even when people have tried to do it very earnestly, is because fully resolving the conflict that we see playing out at the border would mean answering, what kind of country are we? And therefore, what level of immigration are we comfortable with? Are we comfortable with the level of immigration that is written into our immigration laws, which is then fully determined by the number of people who arrive and not by their race or nationality and I think um, there’s a lot of resistance to fully embracing that. People don’t fully want to own that position. And I get why. But as long as that contradiction remains unresolved, people are going to show up at the southern border in very, very large numbers, and it is going to become a crisis if we don’t have a way to reconcile that bigger question of who we are, and it’s only going to get worse.
Max Fisher: Yeah.
Erin Ryan: Because climate change is going to lead to much larger numbers of climate refugees. The global population is rising, which means the number of absolute arrivals rises over time. Uh. Technology means that it’s much easier to get information to and to get to the southern border than it used to be. It’s much easier to send remittances home. Um. And this is why now, I think this past year, for the first time, the majority of southern border arrivals were not even from Central America. Um. A lot of them were from Venezuela. A lot of them were from Russia.
Erin Ryan: Haiti.
Max Fisher: A ton from Haiti. Yeah. We just live in a world where if there is some kind of a conflict overseas, if there is an economic crisis, people are going to show up at the southern border. And as long as we have not answered the question of what kind of country we are, it’s going to lead to the cycle of crises that will be exploited by the kinds of people who you’ve mentioned to, you know, score political points, and a very large number of people are going to suffer as a result.
Erin Ryan: And Max, that kind of brings me back to the highway signs that you talked about at the beginning, because those signs really encapsulate what we are asked to see of the people who are trying to cross into the US. We see faceless shapes. We see people that have been totally stripped of their humanity. We ignore the fact that there is a real human cost for us failing to solve this problem over and over again, for our government failing to solve this problem over and over again. We are not invited in to understand why they’re leaving where they left. We’re not invited to understand why they’re coming here. We just see them as shapeless, faceless.
Max Fisher: Just silhouettes.
Erin Ryan: Anonymous silhouettes. Exactly. And it feels like that’s by design. Because if we saw their humanity, people in power would maybe feel compelled to actually do something to fix what is happening at the southern border and what continues to happen. So the best thing our politicians have is slap fighting, posturing, showboating.
Max Fisher: And enforcement.
Erin Ryan: And enforcement and it doesn’t rea–
Max Fisher: And lots of enforcement.
Erin Ryan: A lot of a lot of enforcement theater.
Max Fisher: Yeah.
Erin Ryan: And it doesn’t really do anything. It doesn’t really fix anything. Our response to the crisis continues to get more and more harsh and less and less effective.
Max Fisher: It makes voters want to be even less humane in how we treat them.
Erin Ryan: Exactly. And we are moving in a direction where we are doing less with more, which is not what you should be doing with the amount of resources that are going into helping to address the issue of the southern border crisis. So, you know, until we actually get to the root problem, answer the uncomfortable questions that you brought up Max, the failure is going to result in unnecessary pain and suffering, and it will be continued to be exploited for political points.
Max Fisher: Well, now that I see this cycle, it at least has clarified for me how this keeps happening over and over again.
Erin Ryan: I think making sense of things is step one, right?
Max Fisher: Well, it’s our step, certainly. And that’s how we got here. Erin, I’ll see you next week.
Erin Ryan: See you next week. [music break]
Max Fisher: What a Day’s How We Got Here is a Crooked Media production. It’s written and hosted by me, Max Fisher, and by Erin Ryan. Our producer is Austin Fisher. Emma Illick-Frank is our associate producer. Evan Sutton is our sound editor. Kyle Seglin, Charlotte Landes, and Vasilis Fotopoulos sound engineered the show. Production support from Leo Sussan, Itxy Quintanilla, Raven Yamamoto, Natalie Bettendorf, and Adriene Hill. And special thanks to What a Day host Tre’vell Anderson, Priyanka Aribindi, Josie Duffy Rice, and Juanita Tolliver for welcoming us to the family.