The Decades-Old Delusion at the Heart of American Immigration Policy

Originally Published in Vox

Ben Mathis-Lilley – September 27, 2021

The fantasy of “orderly” mass migration is having a renaissance.

A man in a camouflage uniform in a blue inflatable boat holds the arms of a woman who is submerged up to her chest in water at night.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent pulls a Haitian woman from the Rio Grande near Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, on Thursday. Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

Undocumented attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border are on the rise, up more than 50 percent from their pre-COVID 2019 peak. Some are being made by natives of Mexico and migrants from the “Northern Triangle” of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, but there are also Haitians who’ve fled a country that was violent and unstable even before the devastating series of events that occurred there this summer. It was Haitian refugees who were being chased by mounted Border Patrol agents in photos that circulated widely last week.

The Biden administration responded to outrage over those historically troubling images by announcing that Border Patrol agents won’t be allowed to ride horses anymore while they are capturing refugees for deportation. (Biden has made the controversial decision to extend his predecessor’s pandemic-era policy of using the “Title 42” public health law to deny all attempts to claim asylum at the border.) It was a farcical manifestation of the White House’s underlying problem: Stuck between its commitment to be more humane than the Trump administration and the general public’s long-standing unwillingness to open the border to hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees at once, it’s tried to find a middle ground of projecting empathy and concern while carrying out mass deportations in the hopes that people will stop coming to the border in the first place.

According to reporting in the New York Times, this is supposedly part of a progressive long game:

There’s some internal logic to the idea. Many Americans say they support immigration so long as it’s done legally, by waiting for one’s turn in line, but are alarmed by the idea of people walking into the country through the southwestern desert and going wherever they want. In theory, if you were able to dissuade or disincentivize potential immigrants from massing at the southern border or trying to cross it without authorization, you could gain enough public trust on the issue to expand the number who were allowed to come through the proverbial front door.

It’s not working, though, and to understand why, consider the centerpiece buzzword of the Biden border strategy: “orderly.” The purported goal of orderliness is all over the administration’s thinking on the subject, including the Times’ paraphrase of Rice’s position and the statement released this week after the special State Department envoy to Haiti resigned in protest. That individual, Daniel Foote, condemned Biden’s policy toward Haitians as “inhumane” and “counterproductive,” to which State responded that “the United States remains committed to supporting safe, orderly, and humane migration throughout our region.”

Consider this in context. In 1986, Ronald Reagan said a major immigration bill that included a number of enforcement provisions would help establish “a reasonable, fair, orderly, and secure system.” A decade later, Bill Clinton was touting a different enforcement-heavy law that he said would make immigration more “safe and orderly.“ George W. Bush promised to develop “an orderly framework for migration” upon taking office in 2001 but was still saying at the end of his second term that illegal immigration needed to be controlled in order to create a legal system that was “secure, productive, orderly, and fair.” And the Obama administration in which Susan Rice previously worked said when it took power in 2009 that it was working toward an “orderly” expansion of legal immigration, for which it infamously tried to create public support by deporting millions of people.

Order has always remained out of reach despite the essentially continuous and universal escalation of enforcement across regimes. The number of agents deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border has grown twentyfold since the 1970s, but the number of attempted crossings rose steadily for decades nonetheless, mostly driven by Mexican nationals, and stayed high until the 2008 economic crash. (By that point, there were an estimated 12.2 million undocumented immigrants in the country.) Attempted crossings began rising again during Obama’s term as the economy recovered and conditions in Central America deteriorated. Donald Trump then won the presidency on one of the most anti-immigrant platforms in American history and instituted policies that were as cruel as he had promised—but attempted crossings by Central Americans surged late in his term too.

On the other side of the equation, “comprehensive immigration reform”—the opening up of legal access to the country, for which border enforcement is always supposed to pave the way—was proposed in Congress under both Bush and Obama. It failed both times, buried in each case by white nativist sentiment. The premise, remember, is that the threat of strict enforcement will both reduce undocumented southern-border crossings and appease the faction of voters and representatives who believe that the immigrants who arrive in that manner are mostly drug traffickers and gang members who plan to defraud the welfare system. The reality is that it has never succeeded in either.

It is telling, on that note, that the “crisis” at the border began as a Mexican phenomenon, changed to a Central American one, and is now Haitian. There is ongoing study in the academic and policy world of exactly what “push” and “pull” factors contribute most to migration surges, but it is safe to say that even the most restrictive, hostile governments cannot prevent them altogether. People leave their homes for reasons ranging from mass unemployment to civil war to natural disaster, and are often willing to take on well-publicized risks of dying by drowning or dehydration to do so. It’s a chaotic phenomenon by nature.

This has been true even when the United States’ economy and the domestic situations of its Western Hemisphere neighbors contributed to “low” migration levels. Under Obama, with border apprehensions as infrequent as they had been since the 1970s, the backlog of pending asylum claims reached nearly 500,000, with cases taking on average 667 days to resolve. A federal judge ruled that the administration was violating the terms of a previous legal settlement by indefinitely detaining families with children, and there was bipartisan outrage over failures to protect unaccompanied minors.

If indeed there is a way to turn away the tired and the poor that is both orderly and humane, Joe Biden is no closer to finding it than Ronald Reagan was. And while cruelty may not be the point of Biden’s policy, or that of most of his predecessors’, it is the inevitable result of trying to keep so many desperate people out of the country where they would like to live.




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