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The Racist Legacy Of Early Immigration Law Is Still Alive Today

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The haunting pictures of Border Patrol agents on horseback, wielding whiplike reins, pushing Haitian migrants back to the Mexican side of the border, have made many people wonder about the Biden administration's policy at the border. Is it any different from the practices of the Trump administration? My guest, Caitlin Dickerson, has been writing about that, as well as examining the racism embedded in America's immigration laws, dating back to the very first Congress in 1790. She says America never really wanted the tired, poor, huddled masses. Our laws are outdated, and Congress has been unable or unwilling to change them. Meanwhile, she points out, many of the people being turned away, held in poor conditions, are looking for work at a time when America has a labor shortage.

Caitlin Dickerson is a staff writer at The Atlantic and previously covered immigration for The New York Times. She's reported on conditions at migrant detention facilities and was among the first to reveal that the Trump administration had instituted a policy of separating families at the border.

Caitlin Dickerson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. The images of agents on horseback brandishing their reins and pushing people back - was that something unusual, or has that happened in the past too, but we just haven't seen it?

CAITLIN DICKERSON: You know, those images actually weren't terribly new or surprising to me when I saw them. I mean, they're striking, which is why there was a strong reaction from the public. I think when you see fair-skinned men on horseback with leather reins flying in the air behind them that look like whips, and they're rushing toward Black migrants, that, of course, in the United States immediately kind of evokes imagery of slavery.

But horse patrols are actually one of the earliest practices adopted by the Border Patrol. They've been doing it for more than 100 years. The Border Patrol uses horses so that they can traverse particular types of terrain. You know, the border is very difficult to cross. In some places, you can only do it on foot. In some places, you can only do it in a vehicle, and in other places you can only do it or most easily do it on horseback. And so that's why you saw those agents, you know, approaching migrants in that way. The pictures were, of course, striking, but the work - you know, it's actually sort of run-of-the-mill, typical Border Patrol day to day. That's what their job looks like.

GROSS: The optics were so bad that the horse patrol was suspended. What does that mean? Is this going to be a brief suspension or a change of policy?

DICKERSON: I think what it looks like now is a brief suspension, something that will come back later and probably after some more intensive training to make sure that Border Patrol agents are only doing, you know, exactly what they're supposed to be doing on horseback and nothing else. Some of the other concerning allegations, things that were captured on video, were just verbal kind of assaults of migrants, people who are being kind of attacked and by Border Patrol agents. You know, horrible things were being said to them, and so there will be some training to address that as well and prevent that. But I don't think we've seen any indication that horse patrols will go away completely.

And I think the question that I and others raised following that news out of the White House is, you know, does it in a way put focus on individual agents and on a practice that's a very old one and kind of draw that focus away from, you know, how the Biden administration is addressing Haitian migrants in general? Why is it that they've chosen to expeditiously remove as many as possible to send this message that they're not welcome to the United States, which could be, you know, legally problematic, and is suspending the horse patrols, drawing attention away from that bigger issue?

GROSS: Well, you also report that some Border Patrol agents feel they're being blamed for what they were told to do.

DICKERSON: That's right, and this is an old issue, Terry. You know, Democrats have a hard time as president with the Border Patrol historically, and with ICE agents for that matter, who do similar immigration police work, but they do it within the interior of the country because, you know, both under President Obama and now under President Biden, you've heard this articulation of language where these presidents want to kind of draw back the work of those agents, have them take a more humanitarian approach that's more focused on helping people who are seeking asylum and less focused on cracking down on crime, which is why most people go into these jobs to begin with.

And so you have, you know, a Democratic president coming into office who's sort of starting at a deficit when it comes to morale and then, following this incident, really puts the focus of what went wrong on the individual agents, who say that they feel they received a clear message, that they were supposed to, you know, make it very clear that Haitians who were at the border waiting to get into the United States were not going to be successful. And so, you know, they followed that order. Some obviously took it too far and violated the policies of the agency they work for in doing so. But in general, you know, they feel like they're basically being thrown under the bus rather than, you know, the focus being put on, again, the directions that they were given.

GROSS: So you raise the question, why is the Biden administration driving away Haitian migrants at the border? How much does COVID have to do with that? We're still in a pandemic, and people are very concerned, for obvious reasons, about the spread. You can't assume that migrants coming in have been vaccinated. So how does COVID figure into this?

DICKERSON: COVID is directly related to the way the Biden administration has approached the Haitian migrants at the border in that the legal authority that they're using in order to carry out these swift removals from the United States is this Title 42 authority that was first invoked by President Trump near the start of the pandemic, which was effectively intended to kind of seal the border to asylum-seekers at the northern and southern border based on the idea that, you know, allowing people to cross back and forth freely could help to spread the coronavirus. This is something that the Biden administration has fought to keep in place, and those health concerns are legitimate. And I'm sure your listeners know that at the height of the pandemic in the United States, immigration detention centers were very much affected, and you saw major outbreaks within them.

At the same time, you know, I reported on kind of the history of the Trump administration's approach to using Title 42, putting it into place. It's not something that they came up with overnight at the start of the pandemic to try to prevent COVID from spreading. This is actually something that President Trump's chief immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, had come up with during the transition before they had even, you know, started working in the White House. Stephen Miller set out to look deeply at the entirety of the American immigration laws and look for presidential authorities that could be invoked that would allow the president to try to seal off, either wholly or in part, access to the border without having to work through Congress.

Title 42 is one of the authorities that he came upon, something that's existed in federal statutes since the 1940s, and so he tried several times to put it into place. He tried based on outbreaks of things like measles and mumps in immigration detention centers, and each time, the White House lawyers would tell him, you know, Stephen, you don't really have enough support here. This isn't going to hold up in court. You know, it's not appropriate to use Title 42 at this point. And so when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, it created actually an opening for the administration to finally, you know, use this authority that they wanted to use.

And you've also seen former CDC officials come forward and present arguments in court, you know, both to the Trump administration and now to the Biden administration, saying we don't think that this is scientifically sound. This approach is not actually preventing COVID from crossing the border. One example of that, Terry, is, you know, throughout the pandemic, I've been able to cross into Mexico back-and-forth several times to be able to do reporting. If you were to try to do it today, you would have no trouble at all because there are - a lot of carve-outs have been made within this Title 42 authority for people who are moving back-and-forth for tourism or moving back-and-forth for work. So it's actually not effectively sealed the border in any way, you know, the one group that ends up bearing the brunt of it is the asylum seeker.

GROSS: My guest is Caitlin Dickerson. She covers immigration for The Atlantic, where she's a staff writer. We recorded our interview yesterday morning. This morning we learned that a ruling is expected later today from the D.C. Court of Appeals on whether Title 42 must be paused tomorrow or if the government can continue to invoke it while awaiting a final ruling on its use. We'll hear more of our interview after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Caitlin Dickerson, a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she's been writing about immigration.

Can you compare some more how the Trump and Biden administrations have handled migrants at the border?

DICKERSON: Sure. So I think that a lot of people now are asking, you know, is what President Biden doing any different with immigration than what President Trump might have done in the years past? And I think that there are a couple of answers to that. I mean, certainly when it comes to the goals that the Biden administration has articulated, they're very different. They're worlds apart from the goals that were articulated by the Trump administration.

You know, President Biden took office and almost immediately introduced legislation that was very aspirational. The goal was to offer a pathway to citizenship for millions of people living in the United States without legal status, to reform our asylum system, to look at the actual U.S. economy and kind of take a clear-eyed analysis of what our needs are and provide legal pathways for people who are coming to work in the United States but are doing it illegally because there's no opportunity for them to actually follow a process at this point.

So the goals, you know, are very different from President Trump, who wanted to shrink the asylum system and was very open about that, who wanted to really limit the number of people who are crossing the border and in particular, the number of people who are crossing who came from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

The other side of this question, though, in this comparison between the two presidents is what things look like on the ground every day. And the experience of Haitian migrants is a good example. The Trump administration probably would have handled this situation much the same. You know, it fought to keep Title 42 in place and probably would have used it to expeditiously deport Haitians.

It's worth pointing out that, you know, the Haitian immigration minister requested a humanitarian basically moratorium on these deportations because of the circumstances that people are returning to now. You know, Haiti experienced the assassination of its president in July; the next month, a deadly earthquake that killed several thousand people. It's not an ideal scenario for thousands of new people to be showing up on a weekly basis who don't have jobs, who don't have money, who may not even have anywhere to live.

And so you can imagine that the Trump administration, just as the Biden administration had - though they probably would have prioritized our goals, you know, the goals that had been articulated by the Trump White House over those of the Haitian government, there's some nuance, though, that's worth pointing out in that not every single Haitian migrant who crossed into Texas has been deported. There's actually - about the same number of people who the Biden administration plans to remove have also been processed into the country. You know, exceptions have been granted for them, and they'll go through a formal legal immigration process and find out whether they qualify to stay.

I think that's something that's not being advertised as much by the Biden administration because they're very wary of sending a message abroad that can be construed to, you know, as an invitation for more people to cross the border. But when you actually dig into the numbers, there is clearly more of an openness and willingness to sort of make exceptions for people if they can qualify, if they can make a case that they would be returned to harm's way.

GROSS: And what you're describing is the Biden administration being in a tough spot. If they publicize all of the Haitian migrants who are being allowed in, it might encourage other Haitian migrants. But if they don't, they're going to get a lot of heat from people who think that the migrants are being - that all migrants are being mistreated.

DICKERSON: Absolutely. And there is some truth to that in that at any time you move to very quickly and expeditiously, you know, in a blanket way make a determination based on a large group of people and put them onto planes very quickly, people will fall through the cracks. And people who've arrived back in Haiti have, you know, made these points. They've said, I don't have anywhere to live. I don't feel safe. You know, I don't have any money. I don't have any possibility of getting a job. Some have children who don't even speak Creole because they were raised in Central or South America. So people are already saying that they feel like they've fallen through the cracks of that system. They should have been granted exceptions, and they weren't.

But you're right. The Biden administration came into office this - I'm not saying anything novel here - with a country that was very divided when it came to how the country should handle immigration issues. And they're very wary of being perceived as being weak on this issue because they want to get that legislation passed, that legislation that was introduced very early in the Biden presidency. And they're not going to do it if they have no support and no good faith from Republicans.

I think that approach, though, has, you know, raised concerns among people who remember that this is an approach similar to the one that the Obama administration took, where, in the early years of the Obama administration, President Obama made a point to show a willingness to crack down on the illegal aspects of immigration to try to curry trust among Republicans in order to try to ultimately get to comprehensive immigration reform. Obviously that did not work. And so, you know, I think many Democrats are wary that the Biden administration may be taking the same approach and may end up at the end of four years without much to show for it.

GROSS: Trump started the Migrant Protection Protocol, known as, like, the Stay in Mexico policy, where asylum seekers crossing from Mexico had to stay in Mexico while they waited for an asylum court hearing, which could take a very long time. And the Supreme Court reinstated that program, upheld that program. So is that forcing the Biden administration to follow that protocol?

DICKERSON: Shortly after taking office, the Biden administration moved to first suspend and then eliminate the Remain in Mexico program, or MPP - Migrant Protection Protocols - and was quickly sued by the states of Texas and Missouri, who argued that they were harmed by, you know, being forced to allow asylum-seekers into the United States, harmed by having to provide them social services. In this case, things like driver's license were referenced in these lawsuits. And so the Biden administration opposed those lawsuits. They made it up to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court basically said that - you know, that the Biden administration had moved too quickly, you know, in drawing down MPP, that, you know, they weren't justified in that decision. And so they've been ordered to keep it in place.

The Biden administration is moving slowly. So they have not started registering new people for MPP. They are providing status reports to the court as they continue to fight this legal battle. And so they're sort of stuck in limbo with regard to that particular policy. But it's sort of a moot point right now because you have Title 42 in place, this public health authority based on the coronavirus pandemic, that severely restricts people's ability to apply for asylum in the first place.

GROSS: Haitians and other migrants from poor countries typically have to seek asylum, as opposed to entering with visas. Can you talk about the distinction and why that's true of Haitians and other migrants from poor countries?

DICKERSON: Sure. So I think the reaction to the large number of Haitians who were stuck at the border and the Biden administration's decisions in terms of how to process them or not raised questions about kind of racial disparities in the way that we treat migrants in the United States and the way that we have historically. The way that our system is set up now, you know, since 1965 has been devoid of any kind of direct references to race. Before then, they were a lot more explicit, as well as references that distinguish between, you know, poor countries and rich ones. But the system that we have left over now does still end up favoring wealthier countries.

If, for example, France were to experience, you know, a very serious earthquake or a coup that left many people vulnerable to persecution because a new, you know, political party had taken power, you know, because of the way our laws are set up now, you know, people from France don't need to apply for visas before they can come to the United States. That's true for most of - or for all of Western Europe, rather. That's true for people in Canada, as well as Australia and other rich and predominantly white countries. Those people can come to the United States and be granted a tourist visa upon entry. And then if they wanted to apply for asylum, you know, once they were here, they could at some point, you know, during their stay as tourists show up at an immigration office and say, you know, I'd like to apply for asylum in the United States. I have a fear of returning to my home country. And they would go through what's called an affirmative asylum process, which is non-adversarial. It's largely done through paperwork, and they'd have their claims reviewed, and they'd either be able to stay or go.

That is not true for people who are coming from poor countries like Haiti, and this is largely because of a system that's intended to kind of help facilitate tourism to the United States, help facilitate commerce and, you know, facilitate a friendship between our closest allies in Europe and other wealthy countries. By contrast, someone coming from Haiti can't just show up at the United - to the United States and get a tourist visa. They have to apply in advance. This is based on a presumption that someone coming from a poor country is less likely to actually be a tourist, is more likely to want to try to stay in the United States illegally, try to migrate without permission.

And so that person, if they wanted to seek political asylum, would have to either apply for refugee status, which is a years-long process and very difficult to get through - not something that most people who are dealing with, you know, an emergency, whether that's that they're unsafe or whether they can't feed their families or both - it's not something that most people have time for. And so their option is to show up at the United States, you know, at our border and request it there.

In order to do that, though, people often have to spend thousands of dollars. Usually their life savings go into these journeys, which are paid to smuggling organizations. And as you know, you know, these journeys are very dangerous. So you have to sort of hope that you survive that journey so that you can request protection when you get here. And so it's a system that is not intended necessarily to create this kind of disparity but ends up doing so.

And it's something that's worth pointing out because I think a lot of Americans look at pictures of - whether it's large groups of Central Americans or large groups of Haitians waiting at the border, and they think, you know, we'd really like to help you, but why don't you just apply? Why don't you just go through the legal process so that we can have, you know, a more orderly system? I think without realizing that for people who are coming from poor countries and who are disadvantaged themselves, they don't really have another legal option to pursue, and that's why they're coming in the way that they are.

GROSS: My guest is Caitlin Dickerson. She covers immigration for The Atlantic. We recorded our interview yesterday. Last night, the Biden administration announced it will soon be issuing a new memorandum to end MPP, the Remain in Mexico policy, while complying with the Supreme Court's decision that blocked their earlier attempt to end it. We'll hear more of my interview with Caitlin Dickerson after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Caitlin Dickerson. We're talking about immigration, the history of immigration in American policy and how policy has changed under President Trump and now under President Biden. Caitlin Dickerson is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she's been writing about immigration. She previously covered immigration for The New York Times.

So you write, American never really wanted the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free and that race was written into immigration law from the very start and literally at the first Congress in 1790. What did the law say in 1790?

DICKERSON: So the very first citizenship law established in the United States made it available to free white men. And that was something that I didn't know. You know, I've covered immigration for, now, three administrations and had written so many stories about the same issues that come up over and over again. I really wanted to go deeper and understand the, you know, root causes of some of the intractability that we deal with here in the country. And I learned that, you know, there's a very different story to our immigration history than the one that's often taught in school.

It starts in 1790 with this law making citizenship available only to free white men, something that was upheld in the Supreme Court many times. Supreme Court rulings have gone on in detail, you know, when that law was challenged, for example, by Japanese Americans who said, you know, they had lived in the United States for decades. They were productive members of society. They had jobs. They had children who only spoke English - really kind of tried to take an assimilation-focused approach to convincing the Supreme Court that they should be allowed to apply for citizenship.

And Supreme Court justices said, you know, there's no way. Our founding fathers were - had a very specific idea in mind of who citizenship should be available, and you're simply not part of that group. And these explicit references to race didn't go away for a very long time. They didn't go away until 1965, when our immigration laws were rewritten during the civil rights era. That's the point when express race-based and ethnicity-based quotas go away. However, you do still see remnants of those original policies in the way that immigration enforcement is carried out today.

GROSS: So the Supreme Court as recently as 1922 - and that's a long time ago, but it's still - it's the 20th century. The Supreme Court sided with the government, who argued that citizenship should be granted as the founders intended - only to those whom they knew and regarded as worthy to share it with them; men of their own type - white men. So what does that tell you?

DICKERSON: That's right. That was in a case called Ozawa v. the United States of a man who had attended the University of California, who had children who spoke English, who'd worked for American companies, who, you know, was wholly dedicated to the United States and actually made, you know, over the course of several decades, multiple appeals to various courts, including the Supreme Court, to try to become a United States citizen. And he was denied.

And actually, you know, it's not just those cases, but right throughout the '20s, that is the rise of eugenic science, the science of racial difference and of the superiority of Nordic white people, which was the prevailing wisdom at the time. And, you know, the United States Congress actually invited eugenics scientists - Harry Laughlin is one of the most famous - to take part in the rewriting of immigration laws, which leads, to in 1924, you know, the Johnson-Reed Act, which establishes ethnicity-based quotas that are supported by this science which has of course now been entirely debunked.

I think what that tells us is that - you know, first and foremost, the story of the United States, of a nation of immigrants, of being a new nation of immigrants (ph), is much more complex than we often discuss and acknowledge as a country. And I think it helps to explain just some of the disillusionment and confusion. You know, in the last four years, there were so many times that I heard people making appeals to the Trump administration based on this idea of feeling that restrictions that were being implemented were, you know, un-American. And members of Congress have made the same appeals to the Biden administration now in requesting that this Title 42 policy be lifted by saying, you know, this is un-American.

When President Biden introduced the legislation that he's hoping to have, you know, taken up by Congress and passed, it was described at the time by something that was getting back to American values. And when you actually take a look at the history, you find that that's not necessarily true. You know, there are of course moments in time where the United States policies open up access to very large groups of Black and brown immigrants. That's not to take away from that reality in any way - 1965 being, you know, the most important one that shifts the demographics of the country for good.

But the legacy of these early laws is very much still visible. A lot of the language that we see being invoked today as people are denied, you know, it's very much the same as what was used in decades and even centuries past. And so I think it's important for us to understand that to sort of make sense of what we're seeing now and decide how we want to move forward as a country.

GROSS: I want to pick up on something that you've said, which is that, you know, we're keeping out all these migrants at the Mexican border. At the same time, we have a labor shortage. Do the jobs that we have a shortage in match the kind of jobs that migrants at the border might be able to fill and willing to fill?

DICKERSON: And that's a really good question for an economist, Terry. I can tell you what they've told me, which is that, you know, we have historically tried to sort of separate migrants into two different groups - those who are coming to the United States for work and those who are coming to the United States for humanitarian protections. But the reality is that anybody who is coming to the United States for humanitarian protections also needs a job. You know, they wouldn't seek safety and refuge in a place where they weren't going to be able to feed themselves or their families. And so the availability of low-wage work in the United States continues to be a very, very strong draw.

And, you know, we do know that there is lots of low-wage work available that people who come to the United States, you know, and they're - you know, don't have higher educations, don't have, you know, the ability to take up professional work, they tend to find work very quickly, whether that's in restaurants, whether that's in factories, whether that's on farms.

And so I think that that's something that we are going to have to address head-on, that the Biden administration will have to address head-on, that Americans will have to come to grips with in order to decide how to proceed as a country because you're not going to be able to eliminate the number of people who come to seek protection in the United States if they're getting jobs as soon as they get here and if they're communicating that to their friends and their families and their communities. And so I've heard that over and over again from, you know, lawyers and federal prosecutors and public defenders who work on the border. They say, you know, we're sending this mixed message. We're saying, don't come. But then as soon as people get here, they get employed, and they get work, and they share that. So that's the disconnect that we're dealing with.

GROSS: Is there a way of fixing that?

DICKERSON: Well, one way of fixing that that's been proposed many times - it's part of the proposal that the Biden administration has made for addressing immigration reform - is to do an analysis of the American economy to find out what our actual needs are and create visas to fill them so that you don't have people sneaking into the country and doing this work illegally. That also, of course, you know, would benefit the worker in that, you know, they would be eligible for things like minimum wage, for recourse for wage theft, you know, for, you know, just all the benefits that come from living with legal status in a society.

GROSS: So where does business stand on this issue? - because if businesses - if many businesses could benefit from an expanded asylum or immigration policy, how vocal is the business world being about immigration reform?

DICKERSON: So this is a place where we've really seen, I think, a shift in the last 10 to 15 years, from the agricultural industry to the food processing industry to the hospitality industry. All of those industries have started to say, you know, we have labor shortages. We need visas. We need help. You have situations where, you know, farms are poaching workers from one another, you know, where factories are having to shut down because they don't have enough workers to process, you know, the goods that they'd like to be able to process and sell.

And so I think that business is pushing, generally speaking, more for immigration reform and the more availability of visas. I think maybe one reason why you don't hear that as loudly as you might expect is because generally speaking, you know, that's a constituency that tends to be more aligned with the Republican Party.

And the Republican Party is right now aligned with President Trump, who had a very different perspective on immigration in terms of policy, though he, of course, also has employed, as a business owner, undocumented workers in very significant numbers. So he's benefited from those same workers himself. But there's a disconnect in the party. But the position of business that I've heard is a reporter by and large has been, you know, we need more workers, and we need more visas.

In the meantime, you do have some business owners, though, who are benefiting from employing workers who aren't eligible for minimum wage, who don't have the ability to, you know, go to the police, you know, to report wage theft, who don't have the ability to go to a union to say, you know, I'm being forced to work overtime unpaid. And so, you know, there is a world in which some business owners benefit from employing a kind of permanent underclass.

But the official position for some time now has been, you know, we need more workers, and we want them to come here legally. And that's part of what I mentioned earlier - that, you know, there are ways in which the American public is pretty much on the same page about, you know, pushing toward immigration reform, and it's our elected officials who are behind in that regard.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Caitlin Dickerson, a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she's been writing about immigration. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Caitlin Dickerson, a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she's been writing about immigration. She previously covered immigration for The New York Times.

You spent a lot of time at the border. You've gone back and forth to both sides of the border. How much time have you spent at the Mexican border during the Biden administration?

DICKERSON: So I actually just returned from a trip to southern Arizona, to Yuma, which is where very large numbers of people from Central America were crossing the border. And I wanted to see what that looked like and how it may have changed since the transition in administration.

GROSS: Can you tell us a little bit about what you saw?

DICKERSON: So what I saw in Yuma was interesting in that it was in the midst of an influx of families crossing the border in particular. And so I had requested to do a ride along with the Border Patrol to watch their enforcement practices, you know, look at how things had changed. That request was not honored. You know, a lot of journalists have had trouble getting access to the immigration enforcement authorities. Part of that is, of course, because of the pandemic. The Biden administration hasn't made opportunities available quite as much as the Trump administration had.

But I got a tip from a Border Patrol agent I knew who gave me a few coordinates. And he said, you know, if you drive to one of these three or four places, you're guaranteed to see some people who are crossing the border. And sure enough, he was right. I went to the first crossing point. I didn't see any. I went to the second crossing point. Right away I got to a gap in the wall where I saw some lookouts sitting, you know, very clearly who work for the cartels. And they track where the Border Patrol is and try to bring people across. They're trying to sneak people in when there's nobody there to catch them.

I kept driving along the wall in southern Arizona, and then eventually I came upon a group of several dozen people, including a couple of dozen minors, a couple of little kids. They were being apprehended. And some of them had masks on. You know, they clearly weren't trying to run or fight in any way. Based on what I've seen in the past, they were a large group that was going to request asylum status.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned the cartel. What was the cartel's role in helping these migrants cross the border? And were these migrants trying to escape the cartel. Or it sounds like they're being protected by the cartel - or maybe just just making money, just that the cartel's making money off of them.

DICKERSON: Yeah. I can tell you my assumption based on a lot of reporting that I've done. The sort of routine for crossing the border in these areas, it's pretty organized at this point. My guess is that these migrants paid smugglers who work for cartels and who basically control all of the land in certain sections of the border. That means you can't just, as an individual, try to cross through a desert that's, you know, controlled by one cartel or another. You'll be killed. Instead, what you have to do is pay them to request access to this land to be able to make it up to the United States border.

And that's where we talk about people, you know, spending their life savings or going into debt in order to be able to get to the United States. In order to cross the land that's controlled by these cartels, you have to pay for access. And then they have guides who, you know, carry walkie-talkies with them. They're usually, you know, young men, teenagers even. They keep track of where the Border Patrol is based on whether they're guiding a group of people who want to turn themselves over to authorities or whether they're guiding somebody who's trying to sneak into the United States undetected, you know, they make decisions about where to guide people and when to guide people.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about the change that you witnessed in attention being paid to news coverage of immigration 'cause I think a lot of people didn't pay a lot of attention. But when Trump started enforcing really harsh immigration policies, then the nation was really focused on it.

DICKERSON: That's right. I think that Trump's harsh language put this spotlight on the border that didn't exist before, and that's for a number of reasons. You know, we've got a lot of issues going on domestically in the United States that people feel really personally impacted by. And so I think it's difficult for people to kind of extend their empathy to a group of people they don't feel as intimately connected with when there are so many other issues before them that they want addressed, whether, you know, they have to do with the health care system, with the education system, with the political system, with the economy. So I think that's part of it.

And I think another part of it, which I've written about, is this sort of presumption of goodwill that historically has been extended to democratic presidents. This is something that folks in the Homeland Security Department and the Border Patrol would complain about a lot while President Trump was president. They would say, you know, we're doing the exact same things that we did under Obama, and everybody thinks we're racist now. Everybody thinks we're doing it out of a place of malevolence, and that's not true. And I kind of took their, you know, concerns, and to a degree, I agreed with them because there were a lot of stories that I wrote and that other reporters wrote that became front-page news under President Trump about things like overcrowded conditions and migrant detention facilities, about things like kids in cages and the treatment of children trying to migrate to the United States alone.

These issues weren't new at all, and they just didn't get as much attention as they had under President Trump, you know, because he talked about it so much, because he used such strong language that offended some people. And so now I think we're in a different place as a country where people are much more informed about our immigration system and much more interested in holding our elected officials accountable in terms of the way that they run it.

GROSS: Caitlin Dickerson, thank you so much for talking with us.

DICKERSON: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Caitlin Dickerson is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She covers immigration. After we take a short break, our rock critic Ken Tucker will review two new remixes of Pere Ubu albums. This is FRESH AIR.

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