Same Effects, New Causes: Why Today’s Immigration Problem is Different, and Our Solutions Should Be Too

The US-Mexico border at Tijuana and California. (Thomas Castelazo/ Wikimedia Commons)
The US-Mexico border at Tijuana and California. (Thomas Castelazo/ Wikimedia Commons)
The US-Mexico border at Tijuana and California. (Thomas Castelazo/ Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus is 2,000 miles from home, and he and his mother are another 34 hours from Mississippi, where he will finally meet his father. Jesus is 14, and he hasn’t seen his father in 13 years. He and his mother are two of the thousands who have made the perilous journey north in what has become a wave of refugees crossing America’s southern border.

In the context of recent years, the refugee flow is enormous. A brief written by the Center for American Progress (CAP) pegged the number of children who have arrived illegally in this fiscal year at 57,000 – which is twice the number that crossed the border last year. The total is expected to increase to 90,000 by the end of the 2014 fiscal year (which has three months to go). The same report cited Department of Homeland Security statistics that revealed they have detained five times as many families in this fiscal year than all of last year.

This is in stark contrast to data gathered earlier this year by the Economist in February. “Barack Obama has presided over one of the largest peacetime outflows of people in America’s history,” they wrote. They cited statistics that documented the removal of 369,000 migrants in 2013 by “America’s deportation machine,” which is nine times the amount removed 20 years ago.

These children and their families (mostly single mothers) aren’t being deported, either. Instead, they are being housed in various facilities around the United States as they wait to be seen in court. As space in these facilities run out, families with documentation showing they have relatives in the United States are given a court date and released on parole.

The Obama administration has asked Congress for $3.7 billion to address the crisis in the form of more detention facilities, immigration judges and stricter enforcement, which has been reduced by $1 billion by Senate Democrats on the Appropriations Committee in an attempt to garner support from Republicans. Congress failed to approve the funding in any capacity before adjourning for a five week recess, and Republicans – who had just voted in the House to sue Obama for using too much unilateral action – found themselves asking the President to do just that to solve the immigration crisis. “There are numerous steps the president can and should be taking right now, without the need for congressional action, to secure our borders and ensure these children are returned swiftly and safely to their countries,” House Republicans said in a statement.

The majority of the children are, like Jesus, arriving from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – the so-called “Northern Triangle” of Central America. Unlike undocumented migrants (using the term “illegal alien” is disgusting and demeaning) from Mexico and Canada, who are quickly deported, a 2008 Human trafficking law signed by President Bush allows the cases of undocumented migrants from countries that aren’t Mexico and Canada to be reviewed by an immigration judge.

As the United States condemns violence upon civilians from Ukraine to Israel, it’s time to show the rest of the world that we can walk the walk. Violence upon civilians has forced thousands of refuges to our southern border, and turning them away will show our international partners that we are merely willing to talk the talk. For a country that spent just over a billion dollars per week on the Afghanistan war, this request and a broader push to resolve the roots of the refugee crisis is a no brainer that boils down to a single observation: the failure of conventional wisdom to explain the wave of migrants coming across the southern border.

The immigration narrative has undergone a subtle change in recent years as undocumented Mexican migrants are deported in record numbers while record numbers of immigrants from south of Mexico are given shelter. 2012 marked the first year that the majority of undocumented children arrived from south of Mexico. On the whole, blistering depictions of migrants as job stealers who come to America and benefit from taxpayer dollars have declined, but calls to deport those migrants have remained constant.

The motivation to cross the southern border has changed, and our policy should change with it. Undocumented migrants aren’t showing up here because of some warped welfare state vision. In other words, they aren’t coming here because our place looks so good, but rather because their place looks so bad.

We also aren’t alone in the crisis. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of migrants from the Northern Triangle who sought asylum in neighboring Central American countries increased by 712%. It is for this reason that calls to deport undocumented migrants and reform the 2008 law to make that deportation easier should get in line behind resolving a crisis that has serious implications for stability in Latin America.

In the ultimate example of short sightedness, Texas Governor Rick Perry has ordered 1,000 National Guardsman to the southern border – but unlike past deployments, the troops will bolster the ranks of the Texas Department of Public Safety to confront what Perry has outlined as a national security crisis. However, since the federal government didn’t call them in, they will not be able to enforce federal immigration law.

The thousands of family units streaming across the border don’t pose a threat to America, which makes Perry’s move look more political and less practical. In 2013, The United Nations released the rankings of their “most dangerous countries in the world” – and Honduras (with the highest per-capita homicide rate on the globe), El Salvador and Guatemala were three of the top five. Rampant organized crime combined with a rotting economy gives youth in the Northern Triangle a stark choice: a life of crime, or a dangerous journey north. (A hint that the talking heads, and certain governors of southern states who think the undocumented migrants are criminals might take: the children who choose a life of crime don’t usually end up fleeing the country.)

There’s a lesson in all of this. Most folks on the home front are confident to see rising numbers of undocumented migrants show up on the news, and attribute it to the same worn out narrative that has been spoon fed by the media for the last decade. But as times change, the world has to be careful not to associate old causes with new effects, and the crisis at the southern border is a prime example.

The previously mentioned Center for American Progress report described the failure of public security institutions in the Northern Triangle to combat rising organized crime. In the Triangle, CAP argues, the “public, private, and civic sectors” have failed to come together to fund government backed security and judicial institutions. Adding credence to such a solution is the case study of Colombia, whose elites agreed to pay more taxes in exchange for robust public security, and brought the country from one of the world’s most dangerous to one of the Latin America’s most advanced economies.

The United States can, through continued engagement and investment via the Inter-American Development Bank and the US Agency for International Development, support these efforts and encourage a long-term solution to the crime crisis that plagues the Northern Triangle. However, CAP cautioned against reliance on assistance alone: “International actors, including the United States, can and should assist in the creation of these institutions, but all the assistance in the world will not succeed absent a whole-society commitment to building and sustaining those institutions.”

While waiting for this “whole-society commitment” to pan out, Congress should take a long hard look at approving the necessary funds to care for the refugees already in the United States. Calls by politicians to keep deporting the refugees without any substantive discussion to stem the tide of refugee flows resemble trying to fill a bucket with holes in it without plugging the holes. We can certainly take a more balanced approach. It isn’t a question of one or the other: the United States has a humanitarian and ethical duty to resolve the refugee crisis at the source and simultaneously ensure the wellbeing of refugees fleeing a blood soaked Central America.

The views expressed by these authors do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.


Nathaniel Haas

Senior Correspondent Nathaniel Haas is a junior pursuing majors in Political Science and Economics at the University of Southern California. He is a member of the nationally competitive debate team, a program that has enabled him to travel around the country as well as to Paris and South Africa to participate in forums with students and international officials on a host of domestic and global issues. Nathaniel’s writing focuses primarily on American domestic political affairs, and he writes a weekly column on the subject for the Daily Trojan, USC’s newspaper. He is currently working with a group of student political leaders at USC to draft and submit legislation to the California legislature. During the summer of 2014, Nathaniel worked full time as an intern for the United States Senate, and he plans to return to work in Washington, DC during the summer of 2015. He now works at USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, where he frequently appears on panels at on-campus discussions. Upon graduating from USC, Nathaniel hopes to attend law school.