What Borders Do
by Aaron Reichlin-Melnick
August 16, 2021
There’s a note in here that points to a decade-long decrease in immigration, during the post 9/11 Bush White House. That was a circumstantial response to both more militarization at the border and a lessened economic incentive. Is that period of time considered a positive time?
That's a great question. I'm sure there are many who did view it as a positive.
The reality is that migration into the United States across the Southern border has been going on for a century. There have been periods of high levels of migration and periods of low levels of migration that are often driven either by push factors in people's home countries or the availability of work in the United States. I think people have this sense that the border is still very porous, but in the last 20 years, there has been a series of tightening measures across the border to make it increasingly difficult for people to cross. And, in some ways, this has actually led to more undocumented immigrants in the United States.
In the 1980s through the early 2000s migration from Mexico was circular. People would come to the United States, work for a few years or a season, and then leave because they didn't intend to stay and be Americans. They thought of themselves as Mexicans who wanted to come here for a few years, make some money, then retire at home – until the border effectively shut. When the border became far harder to cross, people just stayed. They were already here and they realized that if they left, they would never be able to come back. The dream of settling in their home country really went away. So, we get a situation where the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States peaked in the mid-2000s at around 11 million and then stabilized or fell over the next decade. But right now, for the first time in a decade, partially due to the coronavirus pandemic, we are seeing large numbers of Mexicans coming to the border again.
How do you navigate the political responses to the border right now?
I think this goes back to my point earlier about whether or not you see migrant families and children as inherently the crisis. There are certainly a large number of people in this country who treat the arrival of migrant families and children as a crisis to the very fabric of this country, and there are people that stoke xenophobia. You see people like Tucker Carlson push “the Great Replacement” theory — the idea that liberals want to replace white Americans with people of color and immigrants.
There are some people who believe that we must have perfect control over the border and that if we don’t have borders we are not a nation. You must have perfect control over the borders. Those are ridiculously silly comments to make because the United States has never had a border that was perfectly secure in United States history.
To claim that we're not a nation without borders is effectively saying we have never been a nation.
For the first century of the country, our borders were largely open. The first federal immigration laws were not until the 1880s, and it wasn't until 1924 that you needed a visa to come to the United States.
So your question was, how do I navigate that factually?
Well, I just continue to believe the facts matter. I work for an organization that aligns with my personal beliefs that immigrants are a good thing, that we should treat people well, that migrants are not inherently a threat. I will be very open about my beliefs about that. I don't view migrants inherently as a problem, but for those who do inherently view migrants as the problem, the facts largely are irrelevant. It's about stoking fear and division because in their view, even if Jesus himself showed up at the border without a visa, they'd turn him away. Never mind that seeking asylum is legal, these people view that as a loophole.
I interviewed a sociologist on migration who noted to me that in their research the one place they saw movement on opinion was when you asked about immigration through the lens of American values. People like to project what they think of themselves onto those values.
That's right. You've seen polling on this question really shift in favor of immigration in recent years. Even at the height of the arrival of families two years ago, half of the American citizens said that we should accept Central American refugees.
Support for increasing the level of immigration has been rising for 20 years, and a recent Gallup poll confirms that that support is still here to stay.
The amount of people who want to decrease the level of immigration is hovering at about a third of the country would like to decrease immigration. Twenty years ago, post 9/11, over 50% of the country wanted to reduce the level of immigration.
Even to the extent that President Trump galvanized anti-immigrant sentiment, the pro-immigrant voices came out more strongly in favor of immigrants. That is not going away. We are seeing continued support for immigration even under the Biden administration. Even though the GOP has made being anti-immigrant so much an integral part of its base, there are still many who believe in the Reaganite view of immigration and in America as a beacon of freedom.
Can you definitively say that deterrence does not work?
I can definitively say that deterrence doesn't work as a long-term strategy. I think there is some evidence that deterrence can work in the short term. You can temporarily halt some individual's desires to migrate through deterrence, but deterrence can't entirely stop anything. Sometimes, it actually just causes there to be a built-up demand where we suddenly see influxes and extraordinary migration events, as opposed to a steady flow.
So we see these cycles over and over again. With a crackdown on immigration, the deterrents get lifted for whatever reason, and the pendulum of migration swings in the other direction. We have had this since 2013.
Obama tried family detention as a deterrent. That didn't work. Trump tried family separation as a deterrent. That didn't work.
It arguably set off an even greater number of people to come to the border than before. In 2019, the Trump administration tried other deterrent policies; whether those would have worked in the long-term, we are never going to know because the pandemic hit, and literally, all of those policies were swept aside in favor of Title 42, which has been an abject failure. Hundreds of thousands of people have been expelled back to Mexico and many others have suffered as a result of the policy, and yet, we still have high numbers of migrants.
Those who support former president Trump's deterrent policies, like the “Remain in Mexico” policy, like to point to about a five-month period of low numbers in late 2019 and early 2020 — over the winter — as proof that President Trump solved the border. But that was a five-month period, and once Title 42 was put into place, we immediately saw numbers start rising again.
The idea that you can deter your way out of this is false. We have tried that for decades and it has never worked.
And in many cases, the end result of deterrence is death. In the 1990s, the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Doris Meissner, under the Clinton administration, came up with a strategy known as “Prevention through Deterrence”, which was effectively about pushing people into dangerous locations. They literally built walls in the safe places to cross on the border. The idea was if they made the border more dangerous to cross, fewer people would cross. But, the end result was at least 8,000 people died crossing the border in the last 22 years. The true death toll is likely much higher, that is just the official death toll because many bodies will never be found. That policy was a failure. People still kept coming because, for many people, the risk is worth it.
You wrote that the government should view the arrival of high numbers of asylum seekers as a humanitarian protection management challenge, not a security challenge. Is there ever a time when the opposite would be true? When would that not be the case?
I have never seen evidence that migration is a security challenge over a humanitarian protection challenge.
Over the last 40 to 50 years, the United States has grappled with the issue of undocumented immigrants. It is important to note that undocumented immigration didn't really become politically salient until the 60s and 70s with the end of the Bracero Program, Operation Wetback, and the backlash against the growing Mexican population in the United States. This racist fear of people coming into the country was whipped up.
However, studies have consistently shown that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens. The evidence really shows that there are not really any major security challenges to migration. There are management challenges, there are logistical challenges, and there are policy challenges, of course. But, when we talk about security challenges, that would imply in many ways that there are higher than average numbers of people coming to the border with the intent of causing security issues. There's just no evidence of that.
Over the last 20 years, there are zero documented instances of a terrorist crossing the Southern border and attacking the United States. That has literally never happened. Most people are just trying to make a living for themselves and for their children.
A far cry from, “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall.”
The walls didn't work. The Berlin Wall did not work. It caused an enormous amount of harm to those countries. And at the end of the day, it didn't end up solving anything and people still were able to cross it. It ended up causing significantly more harm than good to the people of East Germany and West Germany because of what a symbol it was. Should we ever complete all 2000 plus miles of all across the US border, I think that would be a similar symbol of failure in many ways. It would represent both a failure to have a system put in place to process people safely and a failure to build up capacity in other countries so that people didn't feel the need to make that desperate journey.
Does it frustrate you that the debate around immigration is so circular?
I will say I am optimistic. I think the last four years have shown us that there is enduring support for immigrants in this country, despite the overblown rhetoric and the so full-throated, white replacement theory rhetoric coming out of Fox News.
The support for immigrants among Americans has just grown over the last few years. I am optimistic that going forward we will be able to move to a more humane and safe and efficient way to process people at the border, and that we can fix the broken immigration system that has been letting so many people down for so long.
The birth rate in this country is falling. The American economy is increasingly dependent on immigrant workers. I think that is something that we have come to embrace. After a few years, I've seen a fundamental shift that this country is more welcoming.
I think the younger generation in particular is very pro-immigrant and very welcoming. That is really important because a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment is not policy-based its feelings. It is based on the sense that those who are different from you are going to take away what's yours. I think that the younger generation doesn't have as much of that reflexive fear as older generations. I don't want to fall on any sort of stereotypes here, but it does seem that Gen Z is a more inclusive generation, especially in terms of differences in sexuality, race, and identity.
And I think that goes along with this general sense that America is becoming a more accepting nation. We've often said we are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation that has cracked down hard on immigrants, instituted forced assimilation policies that explicitly discriminated on the basis of race, and done other things that belied our sense of a nuisance. When the phrase, “the melting pot,” was first invented, it referred to white immigrants. In the period of low immigration from 1924 to 1965, how this sense of America as a nation of immigrants, really meant American is a nation of white immigrants — Italians, Irish, and Jewish people. After 1965, and after The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which white nationalists hate because it essentially led to the browning of America by increasing immigration from non-white nations, we are seeing more people accept that America is a nation of non-immigrants as well — of Mexicans, Chinese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Sudanese. I think we are seeing an important shift to where we are accepting not only immigrants who are white, not just immigrants who are European, but immigrants of all races, creeds, and nationalities. I think that's why I'm positive about the future, it really does seem as if the country is shifting on this. Unfortunately, we are going through a very bumpy patch in the middle where the white nationalists are rich and powerful and, in some places, in charge. Whether or not we can weather that storm is something that concerns me, of course. No progress is guaranteed. There is always backsliding, but I am optimistic about the future.