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Former Obama Official On The Surge At The Border: 'This Is A Refugee Crisis'

Migrants walk near a gate along the U.S. border with Mexico after being spotted by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent and taken into custody while trying to cross on March 21 in Abram-Perezville, Texas.
Julio Cortez
Migrants walk near a gate along the U.S. border with Mexico after being spotted by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent and taken into custody while trying to cross on March 21 in Abram-Perezville, Texas.

The number of migrants crossing into the United States in March was higher than in any other month in at least 15 years.

That's according to preliminary data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection that was reviewed by The Washington Post. The figures show U.S. agents apprehended more than 171,000 migrants in March, including more than 18,800 unaccompanied minors. In all, the number of arrests and detentions has more than doubled since January, according to the Post.

The skyrocketing numbers have posed an early test for the Biden administration, which has refused to refer to what's happening on the border as a crisis.

"The truth of the matter is nothing has changed," President Biden said during his first press conference in office late last month. "It happens every single, solitary year: There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March. That happens every year."

Cecilia Muñoz, who worked on the Biden transition team and previously served as director of former President Barack Obama's Domestic Policy Council, says there is indeed a crisis that needs solving, but it's a crisis that extends far beyond the border.

"This is a refugee crisis in our hemisphere, and you're never going to be able to fix a refugee crisis with the measures that we take at the border," Muñoz says.

Muñoz, currently an adviser with the think tank New America, spoke with NPR's Morning Edition about the migrant surge, saying that until the U.S. addresses the crises in Central America that are causing people to flee their homes in the first place, the challenges on the border won't go away. "You can't fix it at the border," she says.

Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited in parts for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

On what has led to the current conditions on the border

In 2014, the Obama administration faced a similar problem. It took a couple of months, but ultimately for the rest of the Obama administration it was managed with the right facilities and the right procedures. We never ran out of shelter space again and the process flowed pretty smoothly. I think that's where the Biden administration is ultimately heading. But they signaled early on that it was going to be messy at first because they inherited a mess, and that it was going to take time until we're able to manage the flow and to properly house people.

But ultimately, this is a refugee crisis in our hemisphere, and you're never going to be able to fix a refugee crisis with the measures that we take at the border. So it is tremendously important that the president has asked Vice President Harris to lead the conversation with the Northern Triangle countries [of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala], where people are coming from, that they have plans to reinstate the kinds of investments that started getting made in the Obama years, and very importantly to help people in the region get to safety without having to cross all of Mexico with smugglers. We lost four years of progress and momentum, but the sooner we get started — and the Biden administration is getting started — the sooner we will be able to manage this problem and its roots, which is really how you fix it. You can't fix it at the border.

The Biden administration has announced it wants to spend roughly $4 billion to address root causes — failing economies, violence in Central and South American countries. The Obama administration spent $750 million, sent that money to those countries in 2016 alone, and it just didn't work. Is this throwing more money at a problem that can't be solved that way?

Look, this is not a problem which is going to go away over the long term unless we actually get very serious about addressing the reasons that people migrate in the first place. We did see some progress in Honduras, for example, as a result of the investments that the Obama administration made.

But ultimately, you can't secure long-term progress in the course of a year or two years. At the end of the day, this is our hemisphere. We live in it and we are reaping the effects of disinvestment over a long period of time. We are seeing the effects of failing to fix our own immigration laws over a long period of time. They haven't been updated since the '90s, and had we done that we wouldn't be seeing nearly the scale of problem that we're seeing now.

But what are the realistic benchmarks for these countries and these governments when it comes to getting this foreign aid? What effects does the money need to have in order to say this is money worth spending?

So, for example, in Guatemala, which is experiencing a drought which had a disastrous failure of the coffee crop, the United States had been engaged in work in Guatemala to change the kinds of crops that people are raising to ultimately make their lives more sustainable in response, frankly, to the ways in which climate change is changing agriculture in the country.

In Honduras, Honduras has just suffered two huge hurricanes that happened in exactly the same place within two weeks of each other. So, immediate disaster assistance is a short-term way to make sure that people can survive at home and not have to resort to making a very dangerous trip in order to survive. People don't choose to take a trip this dangerous or to send their children with smugglers because it's easy. They do it because they're desperate. So we can measure the impact of creating the wherewithal so that people can stay at home, which is ultimately what they prefer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Prior to moving into the host position in the fall of 2012, Martin started as National Security Correspondent for NPR in May 2010. In that position she covered both defense and intelligence issues. She traveled regularly to Iraq and Afghanistan with the Secretary of Defense, reporting on the US wars and the effectiveness of the Pentagon's counterinsurgency strategy. Martin also reported extensively on the changing demographic of the US military – from the debate over whether to allow women to fight in combat units – to the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. Her reporting on how the military is changing also took her to a US Air Force base in New Mexico where the military for a rare look at how the military trains drone pilots.
Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.