There is likely no more toxic and polarizing public policy issue in our country than immigration and the question of how best to secure our borders from migrants crossing into the United States to escape violence, joblessness, government corruption and dismal economic opportunities. Families, unaccompanied children and young men and women leave countries in Central America, Venezuela, Haiti and Mexico and travel north to the U.S. borders in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California without proper documentation seeking to apply for asylum status, which would allow them to remain in the United States until their case is heard by the proper judicial authorities.
Because the economic situation in these countries is so dire, the numbers of migrants entering the United Stats is staggering and unrelenting. According to data from the Migration Policy Institute, there were 11.2 million illegal immigrants living in the Unites States in 2021; that number has certainly increased in the last two years. For example, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) office, which is charged with protecting our border from migrants without proper documentation, reported nearly 7.7 million border encounters with illegal migrants with the peak of 300,000 people in December 2022.
The number of illegal entries into the United States has, however, fluctuated over time. In 2020, the Trump administration’s enforcement of what was called Title 42, a public health regulation that allowed the Border Patrol to expel illegal migrants for public health reasons associated with the spread of Covid-19, did diminish the flow of the migrants significantly. But when Title 42 ended in May 2023 under pressure from the Biden Administration, the movement of illegal immigrants to the United States skyrocketed. Media and internet reports showed thousands of migrants crossing the Rio Grande river in Texas, seeking refuge in border towns and cities like El Paso. These migrants created enormous financial, housing and food burdens on the towns and cities overwhelmed by the constant arrival of new migrants seeking entry into the United States.
The constant flow of illegal immigrants into the United States has created not just an economic burden on border states like Texas, Florida and California but has led to conflicts with the federal government (which has control over the border) over the need for more aggressive policies to limit the flow. The Trump administration promised to build a huge wall separating Mexico and the United States but much of the construction has not been finished. Governors like Greg Abbot of Texas have set up makeshift barriers along their borders or initiated programs to send migrants by bus to northern cities like Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago. In a highly publicized action, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida flew hundreds of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts without notice and with the false promise of housing and jobs. The tactic of busing immigrants to northern cities continues unabated as big city mayors and governors have been overwhelmed with new arrivals who often live in hotels and motels, vacant public buildings, churches and on the streets as they wait for asylum hearings or some action by the federal government to provide short term work permits that allows them to remain in the United States.
At the root of the immigration crisis facing the United States is the failure of the federal government, and in particular the Congress to form a bipartisan solution to the problem of migration and undocumented migrants. The political division in Congress over what policy steps to take to stem the tide of the migrants has made it impossible to reach a compromise solution. Political leaders from both parties and candidates for public office use the immigration crises as a talking point to win over voters and place blame on their electoral opponents. The Republicans have increasingly stressed increased spending to hire more border patrol agents, purchase high technology equipment to detect migrants and the smugglers who for a fee guide them over the border, and the unfinished Trump wall. Governors like Abbott of Texas and DeSantis of Florida constantly are at odds with the federal government and the Biden administration over the failure to stop the so-called “caravan” of migrants. The Republicans charge that the Biden administration has a lax approach to the migrants because they view them as potential voters in the future. In recent years, the Republicans have also raised the issue of illegal drugs, especially the deadly fentanyl. Republicans make regular claims that illegal immigrants are the major source of fentanyl coming into the United States and that taking steps to close the border is a critical strategy for dealing with illegal drugs coming through the migrant pipeline.
As for the Democrats, the Biden administration often show data that the policy of “catch and release” of the migrants back to their home countries along with formal deportations of illegal immigrants remain high despite the high numbers of new arrivals. Democrats also state that the migration is best dealt with by working with foreign governments in Central America and elsewhere to strengthen the economies of these countries and defeat the gangs and smugglers who benefit from the movement of people northward. The Biden administration has directed considerable financial assistance to the countries of Central America as one means of lessening the migration. Democrats also continue to stress that the process of gaining asylum needs to be speeded up because many of these migrants are fleeing the danger from gangs and would be certain target for death should they be forced to return home. Currently, the wait time for a hearing before an immigration judge is approximately two to three years.
It is fair to state that the Republicans hold to an illegal immigration position that stresses heightened border control, limitation of rights, quick deportation procedures and stern legal restrictions on migrants once they cross over into the United States. Democrats, on the other hand, hold to the view that is based on our historic values such as support for the the openness of our country to immigrants, our tradition of accepting people seeking a better life, and the need to support established procedures to allow migrants to make their case for asylum before an immigration judge. Both the Republican and Democrat positions have merit, but they fail to deal with the fact that migrants continue to head north to our borders and do not appear to be concerned with the dangers and limitations that face them once they enter the United States. Comprehensive immigration reform is absolutely essential in order to address the continued flow of migrants into this country and the economic and financial demands placed on state and local government. But without a bipartisan consensus on the steps necessary to respond effectively to the immigration crisis, the result will be a continuation of the ongoing political impasse that does not solve this human migration problem. Meanwhile, the migrants without proper documentation but with a dream of a better life continue to make the trek northward despite the uncertainty.