The Very Real Border Crisis

By Dan Cadman on April 12, 2018

Jonathan Tobin, a man with whom I sometimes agree and sometimes don't, has written an opinion piece for National Review captioned "The Nonexistent Border Crisis", with which I sharply disagree.

The gist of Tobin's piece can be summed up quickly but fairly this way: 1) it's as wrong for the right as it is for the left to portray border and immigration events histrionically when circumstances don't support the melodrama; 2) President Trump has done that in recent days with his tweet storm over the border crisis (or non-crisis in Tobin's view); and 3) doing so puts the lie to the president's achievements in securing the border.

On the first point, pretty much anyone can agree that it's wrong for anyone to unnecessarily hyperventilate over events, whether they pertain to immigration or any other matter. The problem, of course, is that necessity (or its lack) is like beauty — it's in the eye of the beholder. Are the events so out of the ordinary or alarming as to require a sharp reaction? Depends on your point of view. I happen to think Tobin is completely wrong in assessing the crisis as "nonexistent", for reasons I'll shortly get into.

As to the second point, the president may have been reacting politically with his tweets, given the self-inflicted damage from his signing of the comprehensive budget bill into law, which was distinctly unfriendly to immigration enforcement and border control efforts. I said as much in a recent blog, but the follow-on to that is, "So what?" What president doesn't act and react politically? The real question is whether or not there is an emerging crisis at the border and how the president and his administration respond.

To make his claim, Tobin points to Trump's reaction to the so-called "caravan" of Central Americans traveling brazenly and illegally through Mexico en route to the United States to cross illegally and/or make asylum claims. He clearly feels it was an overreaction given the small number of people involved: somewhere between a 1,000 and 1,400. He also points to the fact that under Trump, illegal crossings (at least as evidenced by apprehensions) have slowed.

I think Tobin misses the most cogent points entirely.

  • We should be concerned that this "caravan", which its organizers claim was only the most recent of several, was so brazen.
  • We should be even more concerned that the Mexican government seemed delighted to use the event to stick its collective thumb in Trump's eye by allowing the aliens tacit permission to pass illegally into and through Mexico, at least until Trump blitzed them with his increasingly angry tweets. (At the end of the day, Mexico has little to gain and everything to lose by poking sticks at its northern neighbor, given its massive reliance on monetary remittances from our country.)
  • But the single most alarming thing about the caravan was its composition, which mirrored the last several years of illegal crossings of Central Americans into the United States; it was top heavy with women and children.

Nearly half of last year's southern border apprehensions were women and minors. If that isn't a crisis, I don't know what is.

The entire country should be deeply disturbed by this signal change in the composition of the migratory flow across our southern border. It has caused, and will continue to cause, deep dysfunction in the overall administration of the immigration laws and border security, because our government hasn't found the right balance between compassion and halting the flow. It cannot and should not be permitted to continue. It is almost an obscenity to think that our government, which touts itself as being so wholeheartedly against the smuggling and trafficking of the world's most vulnerable, is complicit because of its ineffectual policies.

And with regard to the third point, it goes beyond naive and into the realm of childlike innocence to think that the success of border security accomplishments can be measured in a single year. It's taken decades of ineffectuality and indifference at the highest levels of government to reach the complex stage we're in, and will take years of concentrated effort to dig us back out of our border dilemmas, which have become near intractable when you add the multiple dimensions of illegal human, drug, weapons, and money traffic crossing the border both ways.

As I and many of my colleagues here at the Center and elsewhere have repeatedly suggested, the dip in crossings, the so-called "Trump effect", should always be understood in the context of a wait-and-see attitude on the part of migrants who, like all other humans, constantly engage in a cost-benefit analysis of whether and when to make the trek. They have seen Trump hit the wall — not at the border mind you, but the wall of resistance by individuals determined to ensure that he gets nothing done. What's more, they have heard the sirens' song of amnesty coming from many lips, not least the president's own.

Is it any wonder, then, that illegal crossings (including, mind you, many more women and children) have again spiked?

But immigration emergencies cannot be measured by raw numbers alone. They are contextual.

In 1980, for example, 910,321 aliens were apprehended attempting illegal entry into the United States. That was the same year as the Mariel Boatlift, in which 125,000 Cubans arrived on our shores. That's a relatively small number compared to the nearly one million arrests, right? Yet can anyone doubt that the boatlift was the essence of an immigration emergency?

Tens of thousands of Cubans arrived in a very short span of time, and were liberally sprinkled with criminals and the mentally disturbed, who were released from Cuban institutions and forced onto the boats headed to "Cayo Hueso" (Key West). The U.S. government responded by sending hundreds of officers and agents to south Florida to deal with the shocking influx. The response was completely ineffectual. I know because I was one of those detailed. Don't get me wrong; we did the best we could. We seized a lot of vessels and made a few arrests for smuggling, although they really weren't very prosecutable cases since President Jimmy Carter had precipitated the flow. We also placed any number of arrivals into detention, although we ended up releasing them for lack of holding space, or lack of proof that they were the criminals or the unbalanced that we thought they might be, or simply because there was no way to repatriate them to Cuba and we all knew that. When they were held in detention, such as at Ft. Chaffee, Ark., riots ensued.

The result of the boatlift was calamitous. For many years, south Florida became a haven for Cuban gangsters of the worst sort (the movie "Scarface" may have been sensationalized, but the drugs and violence were a fact of life), and people of a certain age will well recall the riots that took place in federal prison facilities in Atlanta (see here and here) and Oakdale, La., when the criminals were locked down. The repercussions reverberated for a very long time throughout the federal prison system, and indeed federal and state criminal justice systems, as the same Cubans were arrested and charged with crimes again and again.

It's worth remembering, also, the importance of the presidency as a bully pulpit. As I noted, it was Jimmy Carter who unleashed the flow of Marielitos with his foolish and intemperate remarks about welcoming them with "open hearts and open arms". That is why it's so vitally important that this president not make the same mistake as Carter and inadvertently open the floodgates. He's come close with his constant references to DACA and amnesty.

Focus instead, Mr. President, on using all the tools at your disposal, including the bully pulpit, to ensure that we don't lose complete control over our southern border, lest what happened with the boatlift end up appearing as a mere drop in the bucket compared to what could come to pass along nearly 2,000 miles of terrain.