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How chaos at the U.S.-Mexico border fits into the international picture of migration


The United States is not alone as it struggles with a surge of migrants trying to cross its southern border. There is a global surge of migration underway, according to the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration, as desperate migrants flee poverty, crime and political violence. And their preferred final destinations - the United States and the European Union.

To look at the similarities and the differences, we've arranged a transatlantic conversation. We're joined by NPR's John Burnett in Houston, Texas, who covers immigration on the U.S.-Mexico border, and NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz, who covers the migration situation in Europe.

John, let's start with you. You've been looking into how the chaos all year at the U.S.-Mexico border fits into the broader international picture. What can you tell us?

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Well, A, here's a snapshot of global migration. The U.N. reports that from 2000 to 2020, the numbers of international migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons grew by 90%. And we've witnessed the collapse of states all over the world - in Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, Haiti, Venezuela. And this has caused a huge push factor for migration. Then in Central America, in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, they've been overwhelmed by systemic organized crime. And that's made life unbearable for many people, so they've fled north. What's more, hurricanes and the pandemic downturn have battered the economies of many Latin American nations. Last summer, I met Felipe Sanchez in front of a cheap hotel in Del Rio, Texas. He, his wife and infant son had come all the way from Venezuela and were on their way to Florida.

FELIPE SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Sanchez said his family is being extorted and threatened by a criminal gang in Caracas, but they're opposed to the repressive national government in power, and they feel extremely vulnerable because the national police won't help them. This is just one example of the millions of foreign citizens who feel unsafe in their homeland and made the decision to become unauthorized immigrants.

MARTÍNEZ: Rob Schmitz, you recently reported on attempted migration across the Belarus-Poland border. Are there any parallels with the U.S.-Mexico border?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Yeah. You know, in the early 2000s, I spent years covering the U.S.-Mexico border from California. And as we all know, it's a very long land border the U.S. has with a relatively poor country. Europe's situation is a little different in that most of the migrants who come here illegally do so over water, either over the Mediterranean Sea from Africa or, as we've seen recently with the tragic accident that left more than two dozen people dead, via the English Channel from camps in France to the U.K. Migrants also come over land to the EU through several southeastern European countries on journeys from the Middle East.

And while the reasons behind why migrants are crossing borders is sort of similar - you've got war, poverty, economic promise - I think what we're seeing in this latest crisis along the Belarus-Polish border is different in one major way, and that's that this crisis is a manufactured one where thousands of migrants have been given visas by Belarus' government, and they've boarded commercial flights to Minsk. And in return for thousands of dollars, they're escorted to the EU border and assisted across it. The problem is when they get to Poland, which borders Belarus, migrants have to hike for days through freezing forests and farmland. And that's where I found Doniel Machado Pujol. He's from Cuba, and he was being arrested by Polish police when I approached him. He could not communicate with the police because he only speaks Spanish. I also speak Spanish, so I helped translate his story to the police. Here's what he said.

DONIEL MACHADO PUJOL: (Speaking Spanish).

SCHMITZ: And he's saying here that he and his companion had been sleeping in the woods and drinking water from the river for 10 days. They were starving. And Pujol said he'd been beaten by the Belorussian police. He said, we can't go on; we're too tired. And then he started crying. And he said, there are no human rights over there in Belarus. We are humans; we are not animals. So this type of immigration that we're seeing on that border is a sort of new type of manipulation of migrants who are desperate to escape poverty and war and using them as pawns for political ends.

MARTÍNEZ: John, there have been heavy immigrant flows across the U.S. southern border in years past. What's different today?

BURNETT: A, the answer is technology. Smartphones are the enabler and game-changer in the new mass migration to use the language of the IOM. As one migration expert told me, new technologies have supercharged these immigrant networks. Migrants use apps and social media to find clandestine border crossings and connect with caravans and other groups of folks who are heading north. Human smugglers are advertising on Facebook. And then once a migrant arrives, say, here in Houston, there are mobile apps to find out who's hiring, where there's work and how to send money home.

MARTÍNEZ: Rob, what about migrants in Europe? Are they using these new technologies as well?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, absolutely. You know, Belarus has tapped into a network of human smugglers who advertise themselves as travel agencies on Facebook. And they all promise visas and passage into the EU. The Polish government is also using social media and SMS messages along the border. When I arrived to the border region, the first text I received was an automatic one from Poland's border patrol. I've still got it here on my phone. It says, the Polish border is sealed. Belarus authorities told you lies. Go back to Minsk. And there's a link to Poland's border rules. This is all in English. So obviously, any non-Polish phone in the region was automatically receiving these messages.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, it appears that governments in both parts of the world are struggling to respond to all the migrants and asylum-seekers showing up on their borders. Rob, what's happening in Europe?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, Poland is sending most of these migrants back, any migrants it can find. And that's either effective or inhumane, depending on your view on immigration. You know, Poland likes to boast about what a great job it's doing keeping migrants out of the EU. But human rights advocates point out that Poland has refused asylum-seekers and sent them back to Belarus without having a court decide on the legitimacy of their claims, as they're legally obligated to do under both EU law and the U.N. Geneva Conventions. But let's take a look at how the EU responded here, too. It took the EU weeks of hemming and hawing over this crisis while migrants were dying in the freezing conditions along the border before it finally announced new sanctions against Belarus for the part it played in all of this.

MARTÍNEZ: John, the Biden administration says it had to roll back former President Trump's hard-line immigration agenda and that it takes time to replace that with kinder, gentler policies. Is that a legitimate explanation?

BURNETT: Well, the administration's hopes for better policies have been overwhelmed by events on the ground. I mean, 2021 hit an all-time record for Border Patrol encounters at the southern border - nearly 1.7 million people, even though many of them were repeat crossings. But just look at the 12,000 migrants, mostly Haitians, who massed under that international bridge in a terribly squalid condition in Del Rio in September. It was like a refugee camp. And earlier in the year, so many immigrants were streaming across the Rio Grande and overwhelming southwestern border cities in the U.S. Mayors were pleading with the White House to stop releasing so many migrants in their communities. So again, what we're seeing is a worldwide mass migration here in the third decade of the 21st century, and governments seem at a loss with how to handle it.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's John Burnett in Houston, Texas, and Rob Schmitz in Berlin. John, Rob, thank you very much.

BURNETT: You bet, A.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.


A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.

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