Both Sides Are Wrong about the Border Crisis

A Customs and Border Protection officer near an enclosure holding Central American migrants who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, March 27, 2019. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

Of course we have a border crisis — just not the one Trump keeps ranting about.

When President Trump shut down the government in an attempt to force Congress to fund a border wall, Democrats and liberal journalists — including many mainstream reporters — responded by insisting there was no crisis.

“I’m from the border, there’s no crisis there,” Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas told Politico. “There is no crisis on the border,” Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York declared. “There is no crisis at our nation’s border,” wrote the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne.

Later, when the president issued an emergency declaration to do an end run around Congress on wall funding, the “no crisis” chorus sounded again. House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Charles Schumer released a joint statement that read, in part: “The President’s unlawful declaration over a crisis that does not exist does great violence to our Constitution and makes America less safe, stealing from urgently needed defense funds for the security of our military and our nation.”

They were all wrong. Of course we have a border crisis. It’s just not the one Trump keeps ranting about.

To listen to Trump, the border crisis is a national-security catastrophe. It’s like he found an old VHS copy of Chuck Norris’s 1985 classic Invasion USA, in which drug-peddling guerrillas swarm into Florida from the south and wage a bloody assault on suburban America (blowing up a lot of nice houses in the process).

“We’re talking about an invasion of our country with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs,” Trump explained upon signing the emergency declaration.

From the day he announced his candidacy on June 16, 2015, Trump has tried to fold his immigration agenda into both his “American carnage” and national-security narratives. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. . . . They’re sending people that have lots of problems. . . . They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

While it’s true that criminals and drug traffickers exploit holes in our border security, the picture Trump paints doesn’t line up with the reality of the very real crisis we are facing.

First, according to the Center for Migration Studies, in 2016 and 2017, 62 percent of the newly undocumented had overstayed their visas, and 38 percent had crossed the border illegally. CMS reports that “visa overstays have significantly exceeded illegal border crossings” for seven consecutive years.

More to the point, the immigrants swarming the border aren’t primarily Mexican anymore, but Central American. They aren’t single Mexican men looking for work but rather families, often with a dismayingly large number of children in tow. They’re bringing kids to take advantage of asylum laws. And because they are requesting asylum, they aren’t trying to sneak in; they’re seeking out border officials to file paperwork.

By definition, a wall would not stop any of that.

Last week, U.S. officials announced that the border system is at a “breaking point” because of an “unprecedented” wave of migrants, most of whom are families or unaccompanied children. Customs and Border Protection commissioner Kevin McAleenan anticipates the final number to be some 40,000 children to be taken into custody by the CBP in March. And, as the Los Angeles Times reported, a shortage of facilities has led to families being held in makeshift camps, including under a Texas bridge.

A major driver of this very real crisis is the Flores agreement, which came out of a two-decades-old court case. It makes it hard to hold children in detention for more than 20 days, which in turn means they must be released. Releasing the kids without the parents is problematic for obvious reasons, so the parents often get released too. Traffickers and the poor Central Americans they prey upon know this, which is why their numbers keep increasing — as they did under President Obama as well.

Solutions, or at least partial remedies, would surely include reforming the asylum system and spending on new construction, not of a wall but of more and better detention facilities.

But that’s a lot to ask because this mess is a perfect illustration of our political dysfunction. Democrats have two incentives to downplay both the existence and nature of the crisis. The first is a longstanding reluctance to enforce immigration laws, for both political and ideological reasons. The second is they hate Trump and don’t want to lend credibility to any crisis talk, lest they empower Trump to declare a victory of any kind.

Meanwhile, the president and his party are fixated with solving a different crisis from the one we actually face.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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