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Quick Takeaways from the Latest Border “Crisis”

Quick Takeaways from the Latest Border "Crisis"

A Border Patrol agent guards detainees at a holding facility near the border. (Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

The southern border has been in the news again, and once again the Trump administration in speaking in terms of crisis. The number of migrant families arriving from Central America has spiked in the early months of 2019, leading the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to declare that his agency is at the “breaking point.” Here are a few quick comments on the situation.

First, the recent twist in the migration trend line—assuming that it is not a blip and perhaps even if it is—further undermines longstanding Republican assumptions concerning the forces that drive migration. The underlying assumption is that lenient U.S. border policy encourages people to come and that tougher treatment will deter them. Migration trends have not followed that pattern. Illegal crossings at the southern border peaked back in 2000, when 1.6 million were apprehended. The accumulated illegal population peaked back in 2007, at about 12.5 million, and has fallen off since. During the Obama administration, when Republicans continuously accused the president of leaving the border open and allowing masses of illegal immigrants to enter, more people were leaving than entering. This was true during Obama’s first term, when he deported unprecedented numbers of undocumented immigrants (a policy that had no effect on Republican rhetoric or willingness to cooperate on border issues), and it was true during his second term when he cut back on that. When Trump was running for office and complaining about the numbers of illegal aliens entering the country, the actual number was at a 45 year low. After more than two years of Trump’s “get tough” policies, the number is on the rise again. In the meantime, the nature of the migrant flow has changed from young Mexican men to Central American families. To the best of my knowledge, no one has explained what changes in U.S. border policy led young Mexican men to stop coming and Central American families to start. The root causes of the current migration wave most likely involve rampant violence, unemployment, poverty, and especially these days, rust fungus (which attacks coffee crops), drought, and famine in parts of Central America. Whatever is driving migration, it is not U.S. border policy.

Second, if CBP is facing a breaking point, it is a direct consequence of Trump administration policy. The administration opted to treat all people crossing the border without authorization as criminals and to detain and try them. Although administration officials constantly claim that they are only following the law and have no choice in the matter, this is not required by the law, no previous administration—Democratic or Republican—has done it, and detainees released with an ankle bracelet do show up for court hearings. (By the way, crossing the border without authorization is a misdemeanor. When the defendants are tried and convicted, the most common sentence is time served and a $10 fine.) The policy’s deterrent effect can be divined from the previous paragraph. It is the administration’s decision of what to do with the migrants, not their raw numbers, that has overwhelmed CBP.

Third, the administration’s proposed remedies do not address the problems at hand. The failure of the “get tough” policy to deter migration has already been noted. President Trump’s most famous proposal, of course, is to build a wall along the border. This, however, will have little impact on the recent waves of Central American migrants, who have not been sneaking in but presenting themselves to the Border Patrol and requesting asylum. (Incidentally, a recent Republican proposal has been to insist that asylum seekers apply from their home countries, but that is not a legal option. Asylum must be requested on U.S. territory, regardless of whether the asylum seeker entered the country legally, generally within one year of arrival.) Likewise, most illegal drugs are smuggled through legal ports of entry hidden in cars or trucks, so a wall between ports of entry would not even pose a minor inconvenience. Trump’s most recent proposals—closing the border with Mexico (our third largest trading partner) to all traffic and cutting off foreign aid that was intended to address the root sources of migration in Central America (announced one day after signing a memorandum of cooperation with those same countries)—will only create new problems. As always with this administration, the latest proposals lack meaningful details and whether they will actually be carried out is anyone’s guess.

Finally, the U.S. economy could probably use these people. The argument for keeping them out has never made much sense. Given low birth rates and the retirement of the Baby Boom generation, the native-born working-age population with nonimmigrant parents in the United States is shrinking after growing for decades. The Pew Research Center has projected that between 2015 and 2035, it will shrink by 8.2 million. Fortunately, the United States attracts millions of working-age people who are eager to take jobs. Unfortunately, many Americans think the number of jobs is fixed, so that more jobs for immigrants means fewer for native-born Americans. Well, between 1970 and 2010, the U.S. population increased by about 105 million (from 203 million to 308 million). If the number of jobs were fixed, there would be a lot more unemployed people around than there are now. At the moment, there are more job openings than there are unemployed people. Growth is the natural order, and growth requires people. The appropriate solution to the illegal immigration issue is not to throw them out, but to devise legal ways to bring them in.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.