What sense does it make to send aliens to places where authorities won’t help track them down?
Immigration was Donald Trump’s signature issue in 2016, yet the situation on the southern border has worsened on his watch. In February, illegal border crossings reached their highest level in a decade and show no signs of slowing. The White House blames Democrats, but that argument only gets you so far.
Yes, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are more interested in thwarting the president than in fixing our immigration system. But for most of Mr. Trump’s presidency, Republican majorities controlled Congress. The president’s finger-pointing has grown tiresome, and if he can’t get a handle on the border, he’ll have a hard time explaining to voters next year why he should be re-elected after failing to deliver on his biggest campaign promise.
No one doubts Mr. Trump’s commitment to border security. He has shut down the government, declared a national emergency, and issued stern warnings to the home countries of Central American migrants. He has separated families and threatened to close the border with Mexico. The White House is currently in the process of overhauling the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security. The next head of DHS will be its third in as many years.
The latest idea floated by the administration is to bus immigrants detained at the border to sanctuary cities like Chicago and San Francisco, where local law enforcement refuses to cooperate with federal immigration officials. The White House first proposed the idea in November but lawyers at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement questioned both the legality and logic of the plan. Transporting migrants is expensive, and Congress appropriated no money for that purpose. Besides, why send migrants to cities that make it difficult for them to be located for a hearing before an immigration judge?
Mr. Trump regularly complains that apprehended illegal immigrants are released into society while awaiting their court dates. It’s a legitimate gripe, but shipping immigrants to sanctuary cities would only increase the odds that they don’t show up for their hearings. And it will make those cities even more of a magnet for fake asylum seekers and others who shouldn’t be in the country.
The frustration with cities that coddle illegal immigrants is understandable. Sanctuary policies make life easier for violent criminal immigrants and more dangerous for the law-abiding fellow immigrants on whom they prey most often. Yet the president seems more interested in punishing the Democratic politicians who typically run these cities, even if the results are counterproductive.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders insisted on Sunday that the sanctuary-city plan remains “an option on the table” and argued that border towns bear a disproportionate amount of the costs of illegal immigration. That’s true, but when Mr. Trump says that places like California “want more people in their sanctuary cities,” so “we’ll give them more people and let’s see if they’re so happy,” he’s talking about political payback, not burden-sharing.
The U.S.-Mexico border is often described as “broken,” but the more accurate term is “outdated.” The current system was designed to address the migration of single men seeking work, yet the bulk of those showing up at the border today are families and children seeking refuge. According to one analysis of data provided by Customs and Border Patrol, Central American families and unaccompanied minors constituted just 10% of total migration in 2012. By 2019 they were closer to 60% of the population leaving that region.
The U.S. was ill-prepared for this demographic shift. In 2018 the backlog of immigration court cases surpassed one million, up 49% since Mr. Trump took office. In the main, those coming today are fleeing organized crime and violent gangs, along with political and economic instability. What’s needed in the short term is resources to handle the surge. The Trump administration’s focus has been on deterrence, but that must be accompanied by more judges, more detention facilities and more processing capacity. Increasing legal immigration would also reduce the incentive to come illegally or seek asylum under false pretenses.
One irony is that the U.S. economy under President Trump has thrived notwithstanding the presence of an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. This administration never tires of railing against undocumented workers who are “stealing” jobs or depressing wages, but it turns out that the economy needed tax cuts and deregulation more than it needed mass deportations or a new wall on the border. Today we have a shortage of labor, not jobs, even as wages continue to rise.
In the long run, reducing the number of illegal immigrants will require dealing with the problem at its source. Countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras need our assistance, not hot-headed threats from our president. They need economic development and tactical help in dealing with violent criminal organizations. To the extent that these countries flourish, so do we.
This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal
Photo by Alex Wong / Getty Images