January 11, 2024

There Really Is a Border Crisis

I admit that I was dismissive, contemptuous even, of President Trump’s animosity toward immigrants. His opposition to immigration seemed a cynical campaign issue and his border wall a boondoggle. Ironically, both Democrats and Republicans have declared our immigration system dysfunctional, but for years, they have been unable to agree on a reform of it. Republicans have been especially reluctant to tackle the issue in a way likely to produce legislative agreement, as it has proven such an effective campaign issue.

Although the phrase “border crisis” has been thrown about a lot in the past few years, we do indeed seem to be experiencing a border crisis in 2024. Border cities are being overwhelmed by immigrants from the south and now, with those immigrants being shipped north by Republican politicians, northern cities are likewise seeing their resources taxed by the new arrivals. And people allowed to stay in the United States with an asylum claim are told that their case will be adjudicated years from now. Not only is this situation untenable, but it represents a serious cloud over the re-election prospects of President Biden. Democrats need to improve this situation, at least somewhat, soon. Republicans, on the other hand, have an incentive to ensure that doesn’t happen.

I wish I knew what the Biden administration could do in the short term to address what really is a border crisis. What is most needed is money for more judges to handle not only new asylum claims but also the backlog of such claims. We likely also need more agents patrolling the border, which also costs money. At the very least, the administration needs to acknowledge that border problems are not simply a figment of Republican imagination. It also needs to declare a willingness to address it.

At the moment, of course, House Republicans are demanding border concessions from the administration in exchange for aid to Ukraine. Although I fear what the administration might give up in response to this blackmail, it is important to note that any concessions could be modified in the future. No likely concessions will “solve” the border crisis. If, on the other hand, Russia is allowed to win in Ukraine, the victory will not only be more or less permanent for our ally but will threaten all of Western Europe. 

Lacking immediate solutions to the border crisis, I can at least offer what I hope are useful observations. The first of these is that immigration has always been and continues to be useful. We seem to have a neverending supply of jobs that are unattractive to current citizens. We are producing fewer babies that will become future workers, and our population is becoming older, with increasing numbers of retirees. It is unclear whether increased border security and prompt adjudication of asylum claims could reduce the flood of humanity seeking to enter this country to a level adequate to meet employment needs without undue increases in social spending or depression of the overall wage level. (This latter concern is beloved of Republicans but largely dismissed by economists.)

Why, we must ask, are so many people seeking to enter the United States? Obviously, one’s prospects for a good life are better in the U.S. than, say Panama or Mexico. Asylum seekers are assumed to be fleeing untenable conditions in their home country, yet they typically pass through several countries assuredly capable of offering better living conditions than those in the ones they are fleeing. Why do they not seek asylum in those countries? The answer is twofold. First, if you are going to risk your life for a better existence, why settle for a marginally better life? Why not reach for the gold ring of an American lifestyle? Second, countries such as Mexico, for whatever reason, are not interested in adding migrants headed to the U.S. to their own populations.

We tend to think of asylum as designed for individuals and their families facing persecution from their government or hostility from criminals or criminal groups. Unfortunately, whole countries can become terrible places to live, thereby sending hoards of immigrants toward the United States. We have to recognize, however, that we cannot accommodate every persecuted person in the world, which would entail almost entire populations of certain countries. In our own defense, we must be discriminating about who we can allow to enter the country.

Finally, it is worth noting that walls, historically, have been of limited use in keeping foreigners at bay, a lesson recently learned by Israel. Whereas walls may be of some use on our southern border, they create problems not always obvious to legislators. In particular, a southern border wall can prevent the movement of animals across the border, which may be necessary for their livelihood.

To Joe Biden and his administration, all I can say is “good luck!”

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