Our asylum system isn’t working, but Trump is wrong on the economics of immigration.
What ever became of those caravans? Not long ago, the media was saturated with reports of Central American migrants headed for the U.S. border with Mexico. Did they disband or did the press lose interest?
One thing we know for certain is that the problem hasn’t gone away. The Department of Homeland Security reports that more than 530,000 people were apprehended at the southern border in the first half of 2019, which is the highest six-month total of any year since 2008. Central Americans may not be coming in large caravans anymore, but they’re still coming.
We also know that the situation fueling emigration from countries like Guatemala and El Salvador has gotten much better of late. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that in Guatemala, now the largest source of illegal immigration to the U.S., the economy has averaged 3.4% growth for the past five years and the homicide rate is half what it was in 2009. El Salvador’s police commissioner told reporters earlier this year that his country’s homicide rate fell by more than half between 2015 and 2018. It’s now lower than Baltimore’s.
Central America remains very poor and very violent by U.S. standards, but it’s clear that the so-called push factors sending people north have weakened. The media are less interested in this story because it undermines the political left’s preferred narrative, which is that the migrants should be taken at their word when they say they are seeking asylum.
The only problem is that the steep increase in the number of asylum seekers doesn’t reflect what’s been happening back home. Rather, it reflects the incentives put in place by changes to our asylum rules. “A 2015 U.S. federal court ruling made it easier for migrant families with children to apply for asylum and stay in the U.S. until their cases are decided by a judge,” explained the Journal. “After the ruling, many more families with children began turning up at the U.S. border.” What we’re experiencing today, in all likelihood, is not an uptick in legitimate asylum seekers but an uptick in economic migrants who are taking advantage of our asylum policy.
If you don’t like President Trump’s explanation of why this situation is untenable, try his predecessor’s. President Obama said in 2014 that under U.S. law we admit refugees “based on some fairly narrow criteria” and that “typically, refugee status is not granted just based on economic need or because a family lives in a bad neighborhood or poverty. It’s typically defined fairly narrowly—the state, for example, that was targeting political activists and they need to get out of the country for fear of prosecution or even death.” Anyone who wants the U.S. to remain a place of refuge should be concerned that we currently have fake asylum seekers potentially crowding out the real thing.
The Trump administration wants Central Americans to seek refuge in countries other than the U.S. It also wants to change rules that allow illegal immigrants to live and work here while their asylum claims are being adjudicated. Both proposals make sense, of course, but these are not sensible times. The Democrats running for president want to erase the borders rather than fix them, and the Democrats in Congress are still in resistance mode.
One way to address the problem is by allowing more legal immigration so that economic migrants don’t have to pretend that they’re something else. But the president is reluctant to do that. He remains unconvinced that immigrants are anything other than a drain on this country. The irony is that the U.S. economy has strengthened under Mr. Trump, despite his failure to wall off the border and despite the presence of an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
The restrictionists tell us that immigrant workers are displacing Americans and putting downward pressure on wages. And they insist that minorities and less-skilled workers are especially vulnerable. Never mind that unemployment is at a 50-year low and that there are roughly 1.2 million more job openings now than there are people to fill them. The harm to minority workers is also difficult to detect. The black unemployment rate hasn’t been this low in generations, and the jobless rate for black women is the lowest on record. Wages are increasing overall at the fastest clip in a decade, and they’re rising even faster for low-wage workers. The U.S. poverty rate is at its lowest level in 18 years, and the Hispanic poverty rate in 2017 was the lowest ever recorded.
Mr. Trump ran on securing the southern border, which ought to be a priority for any president. We’re a nation of laws and our large illegal population makes a mockery of that principle. Furthermore, the immigration system in place was designed for another time and is showing its age. So go ahead and fix the border, Mr. President. But please make sure your cure isn’t worse than the disease.
This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal (paywall)
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images