A year in the Borderlands: The biggest stories from 2022

With a little help from our friends, HCN untangles the complexities of the U.S.-Mexico border.

On Dec. 27, the Supreme Court extended Title 42, the federal quarantine measure that former President Donald Trump implemented early in the COVID-19 pandemic to turn away asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Biden administration had pushed to lift it, alongside other COVID-related travel restrictions. But Republican politicians have filed suit to keep it in place; the court's decision is at least a temporary win.


The Supreme Court’s decision to once again delay the end of Title 42 indicates that what was supposed to be a temporary measure has, in fact, forever changed the U.S. asylum system. It’s yet another sign that we are living through a period of historic change in the Borderlands, marked by the narrowing of the U.S. asylum system and the growing militarization of the international border itself. Surveillance of and violence against migrants have both increased — with significant humanitarian and environmental consequences. Meanwhile, the region is also suffering from the effects of climate change and the ongoing megadrought.

In short, the Borderlands deserve deep, thoughtful coverage that illuminates the region’s many complexities. Local and national reporters alike have done a valiant job of covering the ways in which, both big and small, border and immigration policy shapes life here. Here are stories, from outside of High Country News’ pages, that stuck with us this year:

Letter “X” from ‘Abecedario of Juárez.’ Historical police radio codes were once well known to journalists who had access to police radio transmissions in order to cover the crime beat. Some such codes were: X-32, man; X-33, woman; X-35, armed assault on a business; X-39, discovery of a corpse.

Celebrating the Borderlands’ unique languages and cultures

Over hundreds of years, border communities have created unique hybrid traditions and linguistic cultures. Denver 9News’ Jeremy Jojola’s reporting on the distinctive Spanish dialect spoken in Colorado’s San Luis Valley — including words such as quara for “quarter” and jején for “mosquito” — provided a touching example of this. Now the dialect is dying out as community elders pass away, something that Jojola’s family’s experience attests to.

Farther south, journalist Alice Driver translated Julián Cardona and Alice Leora Briggs’ Abecedario of Juárez, a stunningly illustrated glossary of the lexicon created by Ciudad Juárez’s drug war-related violence. It alternates between definitions of gruesome words like achicharrar (“to burn alive”) and the stories of Juárez residents who have been affected by the violence.

In California, “This College Latinx Lab won’t X-out Latinos,” by Itzel Luna, examined the creation of the “Latinx Lab” at the CSU-Fullerton’s Chicano and Chicana Studies Department. The department is seeking to study and preserve past local histories, while also broadening the view of California and the entire country’s increasingly diverse immigrant and immigrant-descended communities.

An embroidered cloth hangs on the line among clothing and blankets belonging to asylum seekers staying at the Casa de la Misericordia shelter in Nogales, Sonora.

Migration policy is a black hole

One of the major challenges of covering the border and migration is that policies often change through dry, convoluted bureaucratic avenues. It takes a special kind of attention to detail to comprehend exactly how these seemingly minute changes become operational and to place their significance into historical context. We’re lucky to have people with that ability covering the Borderlands.

At n+1, Daniel Denvir’s “Border Crises” put the current status of U.S. migration policy into five decades of historical context, focusing especially on the way that policies and policing under former President Bill Clinton set the stage for our current era of exclusion and deportation. Bringing the story into the present, Time magazine’s “Why Judges are Basically in Charge of U.S. Immigration Policy Now,” by Jasmine Aguilera, analyzed how, in an era of legislative gridlock, immigration policy has come to be determined by judges — particularly relevant, given the recent Title 42 extension.

On the investigative side, in the seven-chapter “The Secret History of Family Separation” at The Atlantic, Caitlin Dickerson unraveled the backstory behind Trump’s policy of family separation. She exhaustively demonstrated that family separation was implemented with almost no logistical planning, and that officials worked to keep families apart even after they were supposed to have been reunited. At the Intercept, John Washington and José Olivares used 1,000 pages of internal Customs and Border Protection documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to demonstrate how the agency coordinated with the Texas Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Army’s 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, the Texas National Guard and Mexican police forces to stop asylum claims.

Local journalists also deserve a shout-out for their committed on-the-ground contributions. At the Sonora bureau of Phoenix’s KJZZ, Murphy Woodhouse observed how Nogales, Arizona, has struggled to recover from COVID-related border-crossing restrictions, while Kendal Blust documented how migrants are using traditional arts such as weaving to pass the time during the long wait for asylum hearings. In Texas, Sandra Sanchez of the Border Report kept tabs on even the simplest-seeming changes in policing and the humanitarian sector, documenting how they affected the region as a whole.

Hilaria Santiago with her daughters at their old trailer home at the Oasis Mobile Home Park in Thermal, California.

Environmental change in the Borderlands

The Borderlands’ increased militarization has taken a toll not only on humans, but also on the environment. Adam Federman’s recent article for Sierra Magazine and Type Investigations comprehensively chronicles the effects of wall construction and border policing, going well beyond what meets the eye. And the Intercept stayed close to protesters at Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s illegal and makeshift shipping-container border wall, with reporter Ryan Devereaux documenting how they successfully halted construction.

Drought and extreme heat both had major effects on the region in 2022, and both national and local journalists covered their effects with precision and empathy. At the Intercept, Alleen Brown told the story of Angel Argueta Anariba, who fled a 1998 hurricane in Honduras, only to be trapped in Louisiana’s privately run Catahoula Correctional Center during Hurricane Laura, then the strongest storm recorded in the state. For The New York Times, Ana Facio-Krajcer and Jill Cowan investigated arsenic at the Oasis Mobile Home Park in California’s Coachella Valley, where low-income residents, mainly immigrant farmworkers, are trapped in housing whose environmental hazards are slowly killing them. (You can also check out HCN’s coverage of extreme heat in southern Arizona’s mobile homes and California’s farmworker communities.)

On the solutions side, the El Paso Times’ Martha Pskowski reported on the “water gap” in El Paso County, Texas, where there’s new funding to address the needs of colonias, or unincorporated settlements that lack basic services.

Deepening narratives of violence and drug trafficking

Finally, border journalists found new angles on the ongoing crises of violence, crime and drug trafficking. For audiophiles, Texas Monthly’s new podcast White Hats dives into the racial violence perpetrated by the Texas Rangers, whom many Texans have been taught to revere as heroes. Angela Gervasi of the Nogales International investigated local banking activity to trace a money-laundering operation titled “Operation Funnel Cake,” and put together a granular account of how arms are smuggled into Mexico — and how they are sometimes caught and seized. And in an ambitious seven-part investigation titled “Cartel RX,” the Washington Post followed the fentanyl epidemic from Mexican labs to U.S. streets, with stories ranging from how addiction affects deportees in Tijuana to the various ways cartels establish themselves in points around the U.S. “as if they were inaugurating a shadow consulate.”

Under the Trump administration, the Borderlands drew national attention. But the region’s importance has not diminished under Biden: It remains a locus of political contention, cultural innovation and humanitarian generosity. With the future of asylum and other forms of authorized, legally protected immigration uncertain, the Borderlands are only becoming more significant to U.S. society and beyond. For new year 2023, we wish to see a new arc of history that bends toward justice for everyone in the Borderlands: in the U.S., in Mexico, for those who travel back and forth, and those who are passing through on their way to somewhere else.

Caroline Tracey is the climate justice fellow at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.