President Trump travels to the border with Mexico Friday to draw attention to the crisis occurring there. His plan will do nothing to solve the problem.
Trump inherited an illegal immigration problem that was certainly a problem, but was also manageable. Indeed, when Trump took office, the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States was at one of the lowest in decades.
Nonetheless, Trump banged the drum for a wall along the Mexican border—which he had promised Mexico would pay for—and claimed, without evidence, that an invasion of illegal immigrants were bringing drugs, crime, and gangs into America.
And yet, despite having Republican majorities in both the House and Senate during his first two years, the president couldn’t secure the funding he wanted for this wall, which it turned out, Mexico had no intention of paying for.
So Trump shut down the federal government. When he finally deigned to reopen it, he ended up with substantially less funding from Congress for the wall than had been offered before the shutdown. He then petulantly declared a national emergency to justify shifting funds from the military to build more miles of his wall that Mexico was not paying for.
And while all of this drama was playing out in Washington, something began happening at the border that dramatically altered the trend of declining illegal immigration that had been ongoing for the last decade. The numbers of persons crossing into the United States began rising dramatically. It was almost as if the president had created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In February, the border patrol apprehended some 76,000 migrants along the U.S.- Mexican border, the highest number for a single month in years.
And now the president is threatening to shut down the border altogether. At first he promised it would be this week. Now he says it will be within a year if something doesn’t change. Again, he wants Mexico to do the work of stopping all drug traffic and turning back Central American migrants transiting Mexico on their way to the United States.
What he seems wholly uninterested in doing is coming up with a real solution.
There are two types of migrants showing up to America’s border now. The first is the typical, low-wage workers who have made up most of the steady stream of illegal immigrants there for nearly a century. The second group is predominantly families with children in tow.
This latter group—who made up more than half of the migrants in February—are fleeing violence in their home countries, primarily El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. They are hoping to gain asylum in America.
Our asylum laws require claimants do so only after entering the United States by presenting themselves to immigration officers within one year of entry, regardless of where or how they entered.
If you want to staunch the illegal flows from these groups, then the asylum laws need re-thinking. And cutting off funds to the troubled sending countries—as Trump has ordered—is exactly the wrong thing to do. If you want to lower the supply of people seeking asylum, you need to lower the demand for asylum by making these states less dangerous. Cutting off aid will only exacerbate the problem. Parents don’t drag their children more than a thousand miles across dangerous terrain unless they are desperate.
There’s another supply-and-demand aspect to the situation: Many of these families come from areas where civil society has collapsed and drug gangs rule with impunity. These criminals are part of a supply chain created to satisfy Americans’ demand for illegal drugs. If you attack America’s drug problem, you’re tangentially attacking the illegal immigration problem, too.
The irony in the current crisis at the border is that the healthy U.S. economy is helping drive up the numbers of people seeking to enter the country. As the economic data released on Friday confirm, the economy continues to create jobs at a healthy pace. In fact, we currently have more jobs than we have workers willing and able to perform them.
We need more roofers, truck drivers, janitors, food processors, and agricultural workers. The migrants at our southern border are eager to take those jobs, and employers would gladly hire them if given a legal way to do so. Which would then remove the other source of pressure on illegal immigration.
If the president was actually interested in building a wall, he would have done so when he had unified control of government. It he was actually interested in ending the crisis on the border, he’d work with Congress to pass legal immigration reform.
What he’s actually doing—declaring extra-constitutional emergencies, cutting off foreign aid, threatening to disrupt trade with our third-largest trading partner—has nothing to do with anything except motivating his base for 2020.