While it may benefit Democrats politically to take a harder line on immigration, that doesn’t mean it’s better policy—and political commentators should stop saying otherwise.
…It may be true that Democrats would benefit politically by taking a harder line on illegal immigration, as Bill Clinton[ benefited] in the [1990’s] by taking a harder line on welfare and crime. I’m not sure. The contention is plausible but difficult to prove. Regardless, family detention is a terrible response to a largely fictitious crisis. It would be lovely if shrewd politics and sound policy always went hand in hand. But it’s important for commentators to acknowledge that, often, they don’t.
…They call illegal immigration a crisis—not just a political crisis for Democrats because Trump is using it to rally support, but an actual crisis because undocumented migrants are deluging America at the border.
…This is misleading. Over the last decade, illegal immigration has been going down.
…By historical standards, this isn’t a “mass movement.” It’s the opposite. And illegal immigration is unlikely to return to the levels of the [1980’s, 1990’s, and 2000’s] anytime soon for one simple, and under appreciated, reason: Mexican women are having fewer children. Since the early 2000s, the number of Mexicans being caught at the border has collapsed. Even a strengthening U.S. economy hasn’t lifted the numbers, because the young Mexican men who in past decades crossed the border today don’t exist in the same numbers. That’s because, since 1960, the Mexican birthrate has dropped from almost seven children per mother to just over two. Which means the pool of potential migrants is far smaller.
…The children Trump separated from their parents are overwhelmingly Central American. But Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador don’t have large populations. Combined, they contain about one-quarter as many people as Mexico. Frum and Sullivan both link America’s immigration crisis to Europe’s. But in scale, the problems are quite different. Europe is near large countries with high fertility rates. (The fertility rate is close to three in the Middle East and North Africa and near five in sub-Saharan Africa). The United States is not.
… It’s not true that the only way the government can keep track of asylum seekers is by imprisoning them. As Dara Lind has noted in Vox, the Obama administration (while, to its discredit, it detained some immigrant families) also experimented with two highly successful alternatives. The first was called “Community Supervision.” Asylum seekers were released to the care of government-funded social workers, who helped them find attorneys and places to live, and worked to ensure they showed up to court. The other was called “Intensive Supervision Alternative Program.” Asylum seekers were released with ankle bracelets linked to an app on immigration officials’ phones. The officials also regularly called and visited them. Under both programs, according to the people who ran them, asylum seekers showed up for their proceedings at rates of between 97 and 99 percent. The programs were also vastly cheaper than detention. The Trump administration closed the largest Community Supervision program last year.
…Yes, America takes far too long to adjudicate—and, when necessary deport—asylum seekers. But that’s largely because past administrations have showered money on the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ice) agencies, which catch undocumented immigrants, while starving the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which employs the judges who hear their cases. Rather than respond to the current backlog by denying asylum seekers due process, as Trump wants, the government could hire many more immigration judges.
Another way to humanely reduce the number of asylum seekers crossing the Rio Grande is to make it easier for Central Americans to apply for refugee status in their home countries, as the Obama administration began doing when it established refugee processing centers in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in 2014.
…In a 2007 study of undocumented Mexican migrants, Wayne A. Cornelius of the University of California at San Diego and Idean Salehyan of the University of North Texas found that “tougher border controls have had remarkably little influence on the propensity to migrate illegally to the USA.” Surveying the academic literature for The Washington Post this March, Anna Oltman of the University of Wisconsin at Madison noted that, “researchers increasingly find that deterrence has only a weak effect on reducing unauthorized immigration.”
…Politicians can’t be purists. But if political commentators are going to endorse such moral compromises, it’s crucial that they at least acknowledge those compromises for what they are. The truth is that in the United States today, immigration is a challenge but not a crisis—except to the degree Trump makes it one. The United States can expedite and improve its asylum process, and reduce the number of people coming across the border, without putting families behind bars. Immigration enforcement does not require inhumanity. And saying so has never been more important than it is now.