There’s an Immigration Crisis, But It’s Not the One You Think

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It’s become the Old Faithful of American politics: Every two or three years, there’s a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. It follows a predictable script: White House aides shy away from the term “crisis,” lest it suggest they’re to blame. Leaders of the opposition party repeat the term ad nauseam, spreading the perception of a crisis through sheer force of will. Media coverage features the same tired clichés: sensationalized “caravans,” b-roll of border fencing and windbreaker-clad TV reporters doing live hits from the Rio Grande or some dusty, mud-cracked vista. The immediate crisis passes, but the underlying problems go ignored, all but ensuring another crisis in a few years’ time. Lather, rinse, repeat.

“When something keeps happening to you over and over, you should ask why,” says Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that studies immigration. “Every two or three years, we get a spike of migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet we deal with this each time as though it’s a separate incident that can be controlled, rather than looking at the larger forces at play.”

Failure to address those larger forces has resulted in a U.S. immigration system that is something of a Russian nesting doll of crises, with problems inside bigger problems inside even bigger problems.

There’s the crisis of unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S., of too few beds to house them and of family separations happening in Mexico. There’s the crisis of an asylum system that’s broken, and that has become, with most other legal routes into the country severely restricted, America’s de facto immigration system. There’s the crisis of overflowing communities on the Mexican border, populated by people expelled from the U.S. There’s the crisis of immigration courts that take too long; of virtually no work visas available for Central Americans; of economies in Honduras and Guatemala that have been ravaged by Covid-19, a recession, and two hurricanes within the past year; of the misconception all this can be solved by better enforcement at the border; of a political system in the U.S. that seems unable to rise to the enormity of the challenge.

Right now, the number of unauthorized immigrants crossing the border is lower than it was in the early 2000s. It’s lower than in 2019, as President Joe Biden was sure to note in his news conference on Thursday. Is there an immigration crisis? Yes. An asylum crisis? You bet. A border crisis? Sort of.

But “what there is not,” says Selee, “is a crisis of migrants—at least not yet.”

Presuming we wanted to solve all this, where would we start? What do most Americans get wrong about their country’s immigration process? How much of our current immigration spike is about the way Biden’s presidency has changed the perceptions of would-be migrants? And why did the Trump-era family-separation policy end up having the counterintuitive effect of attracting migrants?

To sort through it all, POLITICO Magazine spoke to Selee this week. A transcript of that conversation follows, condensed and edited for length and clarity.

There is a debate about whether or not what’s happening at the border is a “crisis.” From your perspective, do you see a “crisis,” or is there a different label you think is more accurate?

Andrew Selee: I think calling it a “crisis” distracts us from the larger picture. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t elements of this that are a crisis. There is a long-term crisis we haven’t dealt with. Within that, there is a political crisis right now, and a couple of crises specific to unaccompanied minors and Mexican border communities. Now, if it’s not dealt with smartly, this could all be the beginning of a real crisis that the U.S. government doesn’t have the capacity to deal with efficiently or fairly.

What there is not is a crisis of migrants — at least not yet. There’s not a crisis of large numbers of unauthorized migrants staying in the U.S., as we saw in 2019, 2016 and 2014. There have been periods where the government took people in and released them into the U.S. in large numbers. That’s not happening right now because of the [pandemic-era] public health order, which allows the U.S. to expel people more quickly.

But there’s no way you can “enforce” your way out of a recurring migration crisis.

We should have learned this by now: Every time we beef up enforcement, or do something slightly more draconian, it works for a while, and then, sooner or later, people find a way around it. Enforcement works if it pushes people into real legal [immigration] channels. But if there are no legal channels, then people will just keep finding their way around enforcement.

When something keeps happening to you over and over, you should ask why. Every two or three years, we get a spike of migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet we deal with this each time as though it’s a separate incident that can be controlled, rather than looking at the larger forces at play. There’s something long-term here that we should deal with. So maybe it is a crisis, but it’s within a larger crisis that needs to be managed and has been going on for a long time.

It’s almost like a Russian nesting doll: a crisis within a crisis within an even bigger crisis. How do you begin to solve something like that, with so many different levels?

The immediate crises need a different approach than the longer-term crisis.

First, the immediate crises. Unaccompanied minors: [The federal government] made the decision to allow them in without yet having the capacity to be able to house all of them. In the immediate term, they just have to figure out bed space—it’s literally that. They can figure that out, they just haven’t yet in ways that meet the needs of a vulnerable population. That’s resolvable. There’s also a really big policy question with long-term play-out: An open-ended policy of taking in any minor and putting them in the long-term process in the U.S. is likely to encourage even larger flows [of unaccompanied minors] in the future.

[The federal government] needs to make sure they can continue to expel newly arriving families and adults to Mexico. Even though the Biden administration doesn’t want to, they need to do it to buy time. There are a lot of things they’d like to be doing on immigration policy that have nothing to do with the border. But as long as there’s a perception that they can’t control the border, they’re not going have the political space to do anything else. They need to be “tough” at the border right now and return adults and families to Mexico in an efficient way.

We need legal pathways for workers, and an asylum system that works, because we know some people are legitimately fleeing from violence. Those two things alone would make an enormous difference.

And we don’t have that now?

Our asylum system has become the catchall for everything. Either you can get to the border, convince people you’re being persecuted, and stay in the U.S., or nothing: You stay home, because there’s not a line for you to get into if you’re from Central America and want to come and work. That makes no sense. Asylum shouldn’t be used [to give] labor pathways. Where we should be headed is creating two different paths: one for people who clearly are motivated by the need to leave their home country because of safety, and another for people aspiring to make their lives better by making more money.

The way you fix the asylum system is by taking it out of the hands of the immigration courts and putting it in the hands of asylum officers at the border. Immigration courts are actually quite uneven because they’re political appointments, so their decisions tend to be all over the place depending on which judge you get. Asylum officers can make decisions quickly, tend to be fairly consistent, are efficient, and you can hire them much more easily.

If you want asylum to work, the process has to happen while people understand that they’re in a holding pattern, before they’ve settled in the U.S. It has to feel like a temporary process with a decision made in a few weeks, when people either get asylum (or other relief) or get put on planes back to their home countries. That’s a hard thing to say, but over time, that would create the right incentive: It would mean that the people coming to the border are those who really are fleeing from violence, and people would know that if you don’t have a strong protection claim, you’re not going to get in.

But we also need a legal pathway for people who want to come and work. For Mexicans who want to work in the U.S., there’s an actual line to get into. We don’t have that for Central Americans.

One of the reasons why Mexican migration [to the U.S.] went down so much after 2007 is that there are about 260,000 people every year who come from Mexico to work legally in the U.S. and go back home. In 2019, the comparable number [for Central Americans] was 8,000; last year, it was about 5,500. There really is no line for a Central American to get into. But people are coming anyway, so let’s give them a chance to come legally—at least some of them. It’s what we did with Mexico, and that has kept numbers [of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico] low because they’re getting what they need: a chance to make money.

Sometimes, [economic migrants] have protection needs, too. A lot of them are worried about their kids being forced into gangs, or about a drug trafficker or police chief who’s threatened them. But their primary motivation is more economic, and if they’re able to earn some money, they may also be able to fix their safety issue by changing neighborhoods. We should think about people who actually fear violence and the multiple ways we can help them not have to flee. Frankly, many people would rather stay in their home countries if they felt they could be safe. We shouldn’t assume that asylum is the main way we give people protection.

We also know that among people in Central America, there’s a huge desire to leave. Some of that is driven by high rates of violence and the individual persecution that people face, some is driven by poor economic opportunities, and some is driven by a belief that life will get better if they leave.

We can’t pretend that efforts to change structural questions are going to shift migration flows in the next two or three years. That’s unlikely. We should never measure progress on those in terms of migration flows; that’s the wrong metric. We can do a lot of work with partners in those countries to try and change those circumstances, but that’s a 10- or 20-year proposition. So that leaves us with a different set of options in the meantime. There’s a lot we can do that’s actually—I was going to say, “It’s simple,” but nothing is simple.

You’ve mentioned that there’s a cyclical nature to border crossings. Is the current spike a result of that, or is it because the pandemic is easing, or the economy is opening, or the Biden administration shifted policies?

All of the above. The demand is constantly there for people to leave and come to the U.S., but the huge surges happen when people either have a greater motivation to leave or they think they have a greater opportunity of getting into the United States. In this case, those came together.

Over the past year, there were two hurricanes in Honduras and Guatemala, plus the collapse of fragile economies because of Covid. And that created a huge demand for people to come north to the U.S. There was also an expectation around the transition to the Biden administration that made people believe that they could get in. And—probably more important than that—there is a reality that the U.S. does let some people in, particularly unaccompanied minors and some families.

For migration movements, reality trumps perception. Perception matters, but people don’t usually move 2,000 miles or spend $6,000—the only money they have, plus money that they borrowed from relatives or “financial institutions” like prestamistas, or “loan sharks”—people don’t do that, and they don’t take a dangerous journey unless they think they can get in. There was a perception that with Biden, the border would be more open. And then the reality was that some people actually did get in. The perception of the change, coupled with just enough reality of change, allowed the smugglers to sell this.

I mean, smugglers are smart and unscrupulous marketers. They can’t sell what doesn’t exist, but they can exaggerate what does. I lived in Tijuana for around six years, and I had neighbors who were smugglers. I worked with the Mexican YMCA back then. We had a home for migrant youth, and I was the one gringo there. A father would call us and say, “José is going to get picked up by a close friend of the family,” and these guys would show up — and it’d be the same “family friend” who picked up someone else last week. We got to know these guys. We’d hang out, have a cup of coffee. They are smart, smooth marketers. But as good as they are at selling their wares, they can’t sell what doesn’t exist. When there’s a real change on the ground, they’ll exaggerate that; they can exaggerate how easy it is to get in. But if nobody is getting in, they can’t completely make it up. The reality of change mattered as much as the perception of it.

In terms of weighing perception against data, how do you think through the Trump-era child-separation policy?

The child-separation policy was highly unethical. It certainly worked to dissuade families from going, but it had an unintended consequence: A huge surge followed the end of child separation in 2019. And the reason for that, I think, is that the abandonment of the policy taught people in Central America that the U.S. does not separate families, and, in fact, releases them into the general population.

That wasn’t widely known before child-separation was enacted?

No. And when it ended, it became almost like a giant billboard for families to head north.

I don’t mean that to say they should have continued child separation—it should have never happened. It fell under its own weight because it was so widely condemned and was a bridge way too far in how you treat families. But the fact is that the child-separation policy ended up teaching people in Central America that the U.S. will actually let families go.

And look: That’s a problem, too. At the border, our options are either you send people back quickly or you release them into the U.S. for the next two or three years, during which time their case goes through a very slow process in the immigration courts. What ends up happening is that if you’re released into the U.S., you almost certainly never go back [to your home country].

There’s a very reputable study that the [Department of Homeland Security] did where they looked at what happened from 2014 to 2019 with Central American and Mexican migrants. The Mexican migrants mostly got sent back pretty quickly. But 72 percent of the Central Americans who arrived between 2014 and 2019 were admitted into the U.S., and there’s no record of their departure. And if, in fact, you’re being allowed into the U.S. and there is no real process to figure out what happened to you, that’s a lousy system.

The number of apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border is actually lower now than in the mid-2000s. Yet we hear now about a “crisis at the border” in a way we really didn’t back then. Why? Why is it seen as a crisis now, even while numbers are demonstrably smaller than 15 or 20 years ago?

And [the numbers are] still probably lower now than in 2019, they just doesn’t look that way because they now count “encounters” instead of “people,” and there’s a huge number of people who try [to enter] multiple times. So the actual numbers are even lower than two years ago, and definitely lower than the mid-2000s.

What changed? Immigration has been politicized. There used to be much more bipartisan consensus on it. Support for immigration was never equal in the two parties, but there were constituencies in each that supported it. That has changed. It has become a much more partisan issue, and I don’t know if it will ever be reset. It’s hard to tell.

That said, not all immigration debates are the same. Some people can be strongly in favor of DACA and at the same time very concerned about illegal immigration. There’s lots of nuance in this. Some Americans look at the border and say, “These are small numbers. We’ve handled bigger numbers in the past, and compared to the U.S. population, this is an infinitesimally tiny number.” For others, it raises a question of the integrity of the system and whether anything will work, because the U.S. “can’t handle its own borders.” No matter where you fall on that spectrum, policymakers realize that they have to fix the border in order to have any other conversation on immigration.

You’ve been working on immigration for decades. Have you been surprised by how the conversation on immigration has changed?

Yes, although I think it’s moved in two directions. Overall, Americans are actually more positive about immigrants than they were in the past. But at the same time, it has become much more contentious politically. It’s sort of a contradictory finding.

“Immigration” is no longer a niche topic; it’s become a national topic. People generally think immigration is pretty good for the country, but there are widely divergent ideas about what that means, and it divides along party lines more than it had before. Americans’ warm feelings towards immigration get less warm as you start talking about unauthorized immigration at the border—and sometimes, I think that’s hard for people who follow immigration closely to remember: Even though two-thirds of the public have warm feelings about immigration, a very important subset of that group is really concerned that the border be under control—and their warm feelings about immigration dissipate if they if they don’t feel it is.

I did research in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, when I was writing a book. And I heard it over and over again: “But my grandparents [immigrated] the right way,” or “But in the olden times, people used to learn English when they got here.” And, of course, that is not true. We forget that, in fact, immigration has always been hard. The first generation doesn’t always fully embrace the country where they’ve arrived. Now, some people do that and deeply embrace being American, but many are ambivalent—they left their country with misgivings, especially if they felt forced to leave by circumstance.

The real test of whether integration [of immigrants] works—that two-way street of both people choosing to be American, but also America being an open society—happens in the second generation: whether the children of immigrants can grow up to be [seen as] fully “American.” That’s the real question.

We think of ourselves as a “nation of immigrants.” But right now, the actual percentage our population that is foreign-born is lower than in Canada, Australia or Switzerland or most of Europe. Why is that, and should we rethink that image?

Or Germany! Germany has more immigrants [than the U.S.] right now, as a percentage of the population. So does Sweden.

You know, the U.S. still has probably one of the best templates in the world for truly integrating people who come from elsewhere into American life. But other countries are catching up. The [foreign-born population], it’s more than a quarter of the population in Australia. I think it was 21 percent in Canada the last I saw. Here in the U.S., we’re talking 13.6 percent right now.

There’s an argument: “Well, we’re getting to a highwater mark”—which we are. And yet compared to other similar countries, we’re nowhere close. Canada and Australia are becoming true immigrant societies, where they have rethought what it means to be “Canadian” and “Australian” in ways that integrate and accommodate people who arrive from other parts of the world.

That said, the U.S. has more than 200 years of history of doing this. Not always easily. Not always well. Not always perfectly. No one else has quite that same advantage we do as a country—if we choose to take it. But other countries are figuring it out.

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