Humanitarian Crisis US-Mexico Border

Policies Contributing to a Humanitarian Crisis Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

Luz Mirella Zamora described the border patrol officer who handed her a Mexican passport and a United States visa with the name, “Luz Mirella Zamora” as an angel in disguise. Mirella’s experience at the border, though only one of many stories, is quite unique. Not only did she cross once, or twice, but three times until years’ worth of legal battles and distance from her family made it all worthwhile. 

Each time Mirella crossed the United States-Mexico border, the level of difficulty increased and consequences came with greater risks. Mirella’s life story was documented by one of her close friends, Darcy Courteau, a writer for The Atlantic.

Mirella is a mother of five children who grew up in Mexico. One day, she left with her children to the United States to give them a new life. 


Mirella goes through her residency paperwork at a hotel in Juarez. Source: The Atlantic | Darcy Courteau.


Though she lacked a social security number and was not allowed to work, Mirella did everything in her power to give her children a normal life. Mirella can be described as loving mother, willing to do anything for her children no matter the difficulty.

One time, Mirella’s daughter needed $400 for school, so Mirella made homemade salsa and sold it to friends and neighbors to raise the funds. 

On the outside, it seemed as if Mirella and her children lived a normal life. However, Mirella lived in a constant state of fear of going out in public. She worried of outing herself to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

At a time when immigration laws were even stricter than they are today, Mirella, similar to other immigrants, spent countless months on her visa application to avoid any errors that might risk her application’s approval. When the time came to find out the status of her application, she traveled to Juarez risking the possibility of being stranded there without her children, in case of an application denial. 


TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA, MEXICO – MARCH, 2017 A family separated because of deportation is scheduled to speak at the Tijuana Friendship Park. Each weekend, hundreds of families separated by the wall are cited to see their loved ones in the border wall that delimits the border between Mexico and the US. Source: Alvaro Ybarra Zavala Photography.


Mirella suffered countless days being away from her children. Unfortunately, her children who stayed in the U.S. experienced the cruel reality of what immigrant families go through when separated. Mirella’s daughter experienced bullying in school, like the time she was told she should “pay for the wall.” Her son was also affected by their situation. One day he was called to the counseling office after teachers discovered he was afraid that his mother would be deported. 

As Darcy Courteau states, Mirella crossed the border three times. The first time she was fifteen. Mirella had been molested by a family friend since the age of eleven. Fearing she would be raped, Mirella searched for her grandmother who lived in the United States.

After receiving a loan for a coyote, she took a bus to Tijuana where she met a coyote who promised to help and not hurt her. Putting all her trust in one individual, as it was her only option at the time, she followed the coyote and was taken to a place with a bucket to pee, scarce amounts of food, and sheets on the floor as a place to sleep. The morning after, Mirella was raped by one of the coyote’s helpers and was given a raw egg mixed with milk as her breakfast. 

Asking for Mirella’s forgiveness, the coyote took her to a place along the border where she would climb a tall fence and run for miles. Mirella, along with other immigrants who were also crossing the border, were chased by border patrol officers, and when she was caught, one of the officer’s let her escape. Mirella calls the immigration officer an angel and a gift from God.


Central American immigrants cross Rio Grande. Source: Getty Images.


The second time Mirella crossed the border, she nearly drowned when crossing a river naked in the cold weather. Her third time crossing, she was forced to leave her family behind and live at the border without knowledge of what her future would hold. Years later, Mirella was finally given her passport and a United States visa, allowing her to return to her family in the United States. Suddenly all the pain, torture, and horrifying moments meant nothing to her. 

Unfortunately not every story ends with a happily ever after. Mirella, similar to countless immigrants and refugees, experienced inhumane and unjust treatment along the United States-Mexico border. The border between the two countries has become much more than an imaginary line splitting both countries.

The United States-Mexico border has developed into a humanitarian crisis. Some immigrants are lucky and blessed to be able to cross the border or live there without life-threatening problems, however, most immigrants are left at the border heartbroken, separated from their families or hiding from border patrol agents who actively detain individuals.

The following policies describe the humanitarian crisis at the United States-Mexico border, the treatment immigrants endure, and the severe consequences of these policies on the immigrant community.

Zero-Tolerance Policy/Family Separation

The zero-tolerance policy, also referred to as the “family separation policy,” was launched by President Trump and his administration in 2018 in an attempt to diminish “illegal immigration” in the United States. The policy allowed federal authorities to criminally prosecute immigrants who entered the United States without authorization.

To enforce the policy, Customs and Border Protection separated families, either deporting or detaining parents and then sending children to the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). 


A father and son are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border. Source: Getty Images | John Moore.


United States legislators fought back and forth questioning questioning the inhumanity of the policy and the legal grounds for separating families at the border. According to Amnesty International, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol separated 6,022 “family units” between April and August of 2018. 

America’s Voice collected data depicting the number of children who were taken to HHS and concluded that they held 11,200 beds, which is below the number of children that were separated from their parents at the border. As a result of the overcrowding both at the detention facilities and HHS buildings, the Trump Administration opened “tent cities” along the border. Twenty children occupied each tent. The youth experienced gruesome conditions and their mental health was affected as they became hopeless of reuniting with their parents. 

Between 2018 and 2019, the United States Congress and legislature continued their legal battle , some argued that separating immigrant families was immoral while others focused on prosecuting adults who crossed the border illegally.  


A Central American family is taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents in McAllen. Texas. Source: Getty Images | John Moore.


Although the Trump Administration came to terms with putting a halt to separating families and reuniting children who were separated from their parents as a result of the zero-tolerance policy, the separation of immigrant families continued.

Most recently, immigration lawyers and United States legislators have been working on reuniting more than 600 children who were separated from their parents. Nearly three years after President Trump implemented the zero-tolerance policy, immigrant families are being affected by the policy to this day. Parents simply hope to be reunited with their children, some of which haven’t seen each other in nearly two years. 

Remain in Mexico Policy

Continuing the discussion on legislation imposed by the United States government on the border, the Remain in Mexico policy allows United States immigration courts to require asylum seekers who arrive at the border to return to Mexico for the remainder of their asylum hearing in immigration courts. This policy has affected numerous non-Mexican asylum seekers.


Migrants, most of them asylum seekers sent back to Mexico from the U.S. under the “Remain in Mexico” program officially named Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), occupy a makeshift encampment in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott/File Photo.


As a result of the implementation of this policy, asylum seekers have been left vulnerable in Mexico. 

As this policy launched, asylum seekers were left to live in dangerous and unsafe circumstances, and without information, clueless as to how long the immigration courts would take to close their asylum cases.

Asylum seekers have experienced human rights violations including extortion, family separation, physical/verbal abuse, gender based violence, kidnapping, and homelessness. Aside from living in dangerous conditions, individuals seeking asylum lacked access to legal representation or health services. According to TRAC Immigration, 95% of asylum seekers were stranded without legal representation.

Implemented in 2019, more than 60,000 migrants have been denied entry into the United States at ports of entry and sent back to Mexico, according to Latin America Working Group.

Of the 60,000 migrants who have been forced to stay in Mexico, at least 16,000 are children and 500 are infants

Latin America Working Group’s data on the “Remain in Mexico” policy show the aftermath of implementation of such policies. The large influx of asylum seekers at the border signified an overpopulation of individuals seeking asylum in the United States.

Increasing numbers of asylum cases meant that it was nearly impossible for every asylum seeker to be able to see the inside of a courtroom, therefore, “tent courts” were set up by the Department of Homeland Security where judges held videoconferences to hear asylum cases. The video conference hearings led to various due process violations as the tent courts held anywhere between 400 and 700 hearings per day.


Heavy rains flood camp in Tijuana, Mexico. Source: Reuters | Hannah McKay.


In 2020, more than 25,000 cases were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, causing asylum seekers to remain in Mexico for a longer period of time. According to The Guardian, more than 60,000 asylum seekers were returned to wait in Mexico under the program.

Detention Centers and Immigration Raids

Though there is no clear policy that has been put into place, there are certain operations and protocols Customs and Border Protection along with the Department of Homeland Security have permission to execute. Operations such as “Operation Border Resolve, ” and protocols such as apprehending and detaining unaccompanied immigrant children at the border are just two of the many operations held along the United States-Mexico border. 

President Trump’s “Operation Border Resolve” was created to control and exemplify force during the time of a large influx of Central American immigrants across the southern border.  A report from Immigration and Customs Enforcement explain the aftermath of the operation as a means to control the “spike in families” attempting to cross the border illegally. According to ICE, 650 individuals were apprehended in the span of four days. The individuals who were targeted were Central American immigrants who were near the border attempting to cross the border into the United States.


Detention center along the Southern border becomes overcrowded. Source: Quartz.


Operations similar to “Operation Border Resolve” take place across the United States throughout the year, and some are specifically assigned to the border where CBP controls crossings. Under this operation, individuals who are apprehended are issued final orders of removal and given no appeals to re-open their cases in their future, which takes away any opportunity they may have to apply for visas or citizenship.

Aside from operations designed to apprehend immigrants,  CBP and DHS follow other protocols to hold immigrants at the border in detention centers. Extensive reporting has detailed what happens to adults who are detained and taken to detention facilities along the border. Detainees are subject to harsh conditions and lose hope of being able to enter the United States. 

When children arrive at the border unaccompanied, meaning, they separated from their parents at some point along the way to the border, the children are placed under CBP custody and taken to a facility where further action is determined. In the unfortunate event that CBP cannot identity where children came from or if they have any family, children are taken to a temporary detention center.


Unaccompanied minors encounter border patrol. Source: Mint Press News.


When children are taken to a detention facility, they are either deported immediately or transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services. At this stage, children are entered into the foster care system, group homes, or temporary shelters. During this stage, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services decide the future of the child’s case and whether they will be deported to their country of origin or wait out the remainder of their case hearings that will determine if they can legally stay in the United States. 

Humanitarian Crisis

Over the past couple of years, it is quite evident that a humanitarian crisis has been created and has worsened along the southern border. Policies such as the ones discussed show the impact these policies have on the immigrant community. Whether the policies separate children from their families or force individuals to stay in unsafe conditions along the border, it is clear that the crisis along the border needs to be resolved.  


Valeria Lopez | University of California, Riverside

Valeria is a junior pursuing a major in Political Science/Law and Society with a minor in international relations. Coming from two immigrant parents who were born in Guadalajara, Jalisco Mexico, she has seen first hand the hardships immigrants face when moving to America. Seeing the difficulties immigrants deal with on a daily basis in America, it has inspired her to pursue a career as an immigration and civil rights lawyer. She has a passion for fighting for the rights of not only immigrants but for individuals who face racial and social injustices. She wishes to raise awareness about immigration issues such as the inhumane conditions children and adults experience in detention camps as well as helping families attain their documents to be able to work and live in the U.S. In the future she would like to start a charity that helps immigrant families overcome the difficulties that come along with living in a foreign country that is not always welcoming to immigrants. Valeria hopes that her work as an immigration writer will allow her to spread the stories of immigrants and that her career in immigration and civil rights law will allow her to create change for the Latino immigrant community.