Former President Bill Clinton was interviewed recently by Fareed Zakaria for a CNN podcast, and if you listen closely, the 42nd president was sending a message to both the Biden administration and his fellow Democrats about the problems created by an out-of-control Southwest border where illegal entrants are gaming our asylum laws. They would be wise to listen — for political reasons if nothing else — but that advice may be coming a little too late.
The Interview. Zakaria broke that interview into at least three parts on his Facebook page, but the relevant one is part three, which begins with the former president talking about his Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), which will be holding its first annual meeting in five years. Why now? The world faces a “urgent and historic moment, including several existential challenges”.
As an aside, I think that “existential challenges” is one of the most overused terms in the 21st century. Human civilization is several millennia old and has some how managed to “exist” through innumerable waves of famine, war, and disease, each of which was almost definitely considered an “existential” threat in its time.
“Gaming the System”. But I digress. Zakaria quickly (at the 3:20 mark) moved into “another issue you guys are going to take up at CGI, the refugees”.
In an October 4 post, I noted that the border is an issue Zakaria — who is not traditionally thought of as a “border guy”, unlike Fox News’ Bill Melugin — has been talking about lately. I will return to what I believe are the reasons for his newfound interest below.
Here is the key part of that exchange:
Zakaria: One of the things that I think the right has hammered at with regard to the Democratic Party and President Biden is this issue of refugees coming into the United States. And I think it’s fair to say that that the asylum system seems to be broken. This was meant to be a system that allowed people who were in desperate circumstances, and now what you have is a lot of people who are essentially economic migrants coming in, essentially gaming the system, using the asylum system. Isn’t it true that there has to be some order placed on this? Some controls?
Clinton: I agree with that. That is, there is a limit on how many migrants any society can take without severe disruption and assistance, and our system is based much more on an assumption that things would be more normal. As long as I can remember, we’ve had an immigration system, we’ve given green cards to people from other countries who’ve had valuable skills that we needed. And it generally had a lot of support until somebody felt that their economic interests [were] threatened.
At that point, Clinton veered into the “Bracero Program” that brought Mexican workers into the United States, and to the effect of NAFTA on border communities.
Note, however, that missing from this transcription is that after Zakaria referred to “a lot of people who are essentially economic migrants”, Clinton spoke over the reporter to say, “Yes”, and then shook his head in agreement thereafter.
I have no doubt that the pair discussed the topics that would be covered in the interview beforehand, and therefore don’t think it’s incidental that the discussion turned to the border. Even absent that, Bill Clinton is one of the best politicians I have ever seen up close, and he would not say anything without intending to make a point.
That said, there are actually three separate points the former president made. First, order and controls must be placed on the illegal entry of migrants across the Southwest border. Second, there’s a limit on the number of migrants “any society can take without severe disruption”. And third, our immigration “system is based on an assumption that things would be more normal”.
“Normalcy” at the Border. Taking the third point first, the current situation at the Southwest border is far from “normal”.
Not only did Border Patrol agents make more apprehensions in FY 2021 at the Southwest border than in any prior year in history (records go back to FY 2000, the last full fiscal year under Clinton), but they broke that record for FY 2022 by July, with two reporting months to go.
In fact, agents at the U.S.-Mexico line had apprehended more illegal entrants by July than they had nationwide in Border Patrol history, records for which go back to FY 1925.
That is not the only reason why the situation at the Southwest border is not normal. In FY 2000, more than 98 percent of the aliens apprehended at the Southwest border were Mexican nationals. Most were single adult males, who could be removed or returned quickly.
That gradually changed in the early 2000s, as more nationals of the “Northern Triangle” countries of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) began entering illegally. By FY 2014, more than half of illegal entrants were from countries “other than Mexico” (OTMs), nearly all of them (just over 50 percent of the total) from the Northern Triangle.
The dawn of the Biden administration brought a new phenomenon — illegal entrants who were not only OTMs, but not from the Northern Triangle (ONTs), either. In FY 2022 through the end of August, more than 827,500 OTM/ONTs had been apprehended at the Southwest border, accounting for more than 41 percent of all apprehensions.
They are coming from countries as widely dispersed as Nicaragua, Nepal, and Niger, and thus a strategy of border control that solely addresses the “root causes” of illegal migration from Central American countries is useless — but it’s the only one that the Biden administration is using.
Controls on Illegal Entries. Why do I say that a “root causes” strategy is the only one that the Biden White House is pursuing at the border? Because the administration has admitted as much.
Unlike Clinton and every other president, Joe Biden has no plan, let alone a strategy, to deter illegal migrants by imposing consequences (detention, prosecution, etc.) on aliens who have entered the United States in violation of the law. Prosecutions for illegal entry have plummeted under Biden, and the president is asking Congress to cut funding for DHS’s already limited alien detention space in the FY 2023 budget.
Instead, the administration’s only response to the humanitarian disaster at the Southwest border is to funnel illegal entrants more quickly into the already overburdened immigration court system. That’s not control — it’s managing decline.
Clinton took a much different tack, asserting in his 1995 State of the Union address:
We are a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.
He backed up those words in 1996 when he signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). A key component of IIRIRA was to give the then-INS (now CBP) “expedited removal” authority, which allows Border Patrol agents to quickly remove illegal entrants to prevent them from gaming the asylum system.
Between July 2021 and July 2022, DHS used expedited removal to remove fewer that 57,000 of the 1.29 million aliens encountered by CBP at the Southwest border (4.3 percent) who were not expelled under CDC orders issued pursuant to Title 42 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, however.
By contrast, more than 1.3 million illegal entrants have been released into the United States under Biden, even though Congress has mandated that they all be detained. There are no controls on illegal entrants at the border — aside from Title 42, which Biden wants to end — right now, but Clinton is plainly signaling it’s in the president’s best interests to do so.
Limits on Illegal Entrants. Consequently, there are few if any limits on illegal immigration, which Clinton warned were necessary to avoid “severe disruption” here.
That brings me to the last point the former president made when talking to Zakaria:
Now you’ve just got the largest number of refugees since World War II because of Syria and now Ukraine and other problems in the middle. What happened in Venezuela had more than two million refugees, pouring into first Colombia and then to nearby countries, has created unprecedented new challenges, and meanwhile it provides opportunities for stunts, like Governor Abbott sending his refugees to some place that he thinks is advocating for a broad-minded policy he doesn’t have to live with and then Governor DeSantis sending those people to Martha’s Vineyard. Amazing — that may come back to haunt him a little bit.
Conflict in Syria and Ukraine notwithstanding, few nationals of those countries have entered the United States illegally of late, largely because nationals of the former who leave the immediate area generally choose Europe as a destination, and nationals of the latter have been allowed to live and work in the European Union.
Venezuela is a different situation, the scope of which Clinton underestimated. Some six million nationals of that country have fled the socialist regime there, two million to neighboring Colombia and the rest to other countries.
They are increasingly coming to the United States, with nearly 154,000 Venezuelans encountered by CBP at the Southwest border in the first 11 months of FY 2022, more than 55 times as many as in FY 2020, and more than three times as many as in FY 2021. Venezuela’s problems have persisted for over a decade, so it’s not like they are coming now because things have gotten so much worse back home.
The United States cannot accommodate them, let alone the rest of the world’s population who are fleeing conflict and/or poverty, so as Clinton noted there must be limits.
The disruption Clinton warned of has already hit cities (Washington, D.C. , New York City, and Chicago) to which Governor Greg Abbott (R-Texas) and his fellow Republican, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, have bused migrants, with the mayors of each seeking federal cash to deal with the new arrivals.
If something cannot go on forever, it will stop, so Biden must either awaken to the problems he has created at the border, or the voters will force him to address them.
Clinton suffered an electoral wipeout in his first midterm elections, which as columnist Joe Guzzardi has explained led to his “Post-1994 Mid-Term Immigration Awakening”, and thus he likely wants to spare Biden and his fellow Democrats the headaches attendant to congressional control by the opposition. I don’t believe in coincidences in politics, and so Clinton’s border analysis was likely intentional.
Similar sentiments are likely driving Zakaria’s newfound interest in the events unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico line. Like many at CNN, he has been a fervent Trump critic, and it’s doubtful he wants to see the former president back in the White House.
Biden’s border policies are extremely unpopular for many of the reasons Clinton discussed (without alluding to his latest successor), and Abbott, Ducey, and DeSantis have forced the national media to focus on the effects of those policies. With the midterm elections less than a month away, however, Bill Clinton’s sage border counsel may be coming a little too late.