Real Clear Policy, May 10, 2021
President Biden finally seems to realize there's a crisis on the southern border. In March he breezily assured reporters that “The truth of the matter is: Nothing has changed. It happens every single, solitary year.” But now, with polling clearly showing his vulnerability on immigration, he blames the Trump administration for not telling him there would be a border crisis.
The administration's fear of political fallout is also clear from the game of hot potato for the job of public face of the border effort. First it was DHS Secretary Mayorkas, but when he performed poorly, the White House took control of the border messaging. The obvious point person was former Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson, who was on Biden's National Security Council in charge of migration issues. But Vice President Harris was named border czar, then Jacobson quit, then Harris clarified that she was only the "root causes" czar, and wasn't going to be stuck having to explain the mess at the border.
The White House befuddlement in response to the surge of Central Americans and others at the border is reminiscent of President Jimmy Carter's response to an earlier migration crisis. Back in 1980 (when Biden had already been in the Senate for more than seven years), Carter sparked the Mariel Boatlift from Cuba by saying he welcomed potential migrants with "open hearts and open arms," and got more than he bargained for.
But as politically damaging as the Mariel Boatlift was for his administration and party (Bill Clinton lost reelection as Arkansas governor because of it), Carter had much more leeway than Biden in successfully responding to the migration crisis that he had instigated. First, the migrants all came by boat and were thus much easier to interdict. And more importantly, immigration was not a major issue in Carter's campaign nor a top-shelf concern for the various interest groups that supported him, allowing him to shut down the flow without too much pushback from his base.
Biden does not have those advantages; the Central Americans who have taken him up on "La Invitacion" to jump the border en masse can't just be fished out of the ocean, and Biden is politically locked into a permissive approach to immigration.
But the White House realizes it has to do something to try to slow the flow. So the administration has settled on three initiatives it hopes will remove the border crisis from the headlines. None of them is likely to work, but they're worth looking at in turn.
Outsourcing Enforcement to Mexico
The first, immediate, response has been to try to get Mexico to do what the Biden administration is unwilling to do. The White House is sending some 2.5 million vaccine doses to Mexico in exchange for a promised crackdown on Central Americans headed north. (The denial of a quid pro quo is not to be taken seriously.)
Vice President Harris consulted with Mexico's president last week about what can only be described as a bribe to get Mexico to, as the Washington Post blandly put it, "carry out immigration enforcement functions at a time when such measures are subject to frequent legal challenges in U.S. courts or politically unpalatable to Democrats." Or, as immigration analyst Cris Ramon told the New York Times, “All the positive humanitarian policies are being done by the Biden administration, and then the Mexicans are left with the dirty work.”
But can outsourcing the protection of America's borders to our southern neighbor actually work? President Trump famously got Mexican cooperation on border enforcement by threatening trade sanctions — a threat Mexican authorities took seriously because they rightly feared that Trump would follow through. But that cooperation worked to the degree it did because both U.S. policy and Mexico’s were pulling in the same direction. Mexico's National Guard would make it hard to get past its own southern border with Guatemala, but if you did get past them, the American authorities would also turn you away.
Under Biden however, Mexican and American policies point in opposite directions, negating much of the effect of Mexican enforcement efforts. Biden is putting Mexico in the position of the Wal-Mart security guard tasked with controlling the crowds desperate to get in for the Black Friday deals.
So long as the administration's actions send the message that migrants have a good chance of being released into the U.S. (and virtually no chance of ever being removed), migrants will devise ways around any Mexican interdiction effort.
The second prong of the administration's approach is to try to fix the root causes of migration — the poverty, corruption, disorder, and ineffectual governance that prompt people to consider leaving their countries in the first place. On his first day in office, the president announced, among other things, a plan to provide $4 billion in aid to Central America over the next four years. This, as noted, is Vice President Harris's bailiwick, as it was Vice President Biden's during the Obama administration.
There are two problems with this as a response to the border crisis. First, there is no evidence we have any idea how to do this. After all, what the Biden Administration is talking about is nation-building, and our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan should be cause for humility, not doubling down. The president's simplistic comments in this regard do not inspire confidence:
in one of the major cities, the reason people were leaving is they couldn’t walk in the street because they were getting — their kids were getting beat up or shot or in gang violence.
Well, what I was able to do is not give money to the head of state, because so many are corrupt, but I was able to say, “Okay, you need lighting in the streets to change things? I’ll put the lighting in.” We got a contractor. We got the type of lighting. We paid directly to the contractor; it did not go through the government. And violent crime significantly was reduced in that city. Fewer people sought to leave.
If only it were that easy.
In fact, a report from the Government Accountability Office found that from 2013 to 2018, the federal government already allocated nearly $4 billion in aid to Central America (including, I suppose, Biden's light bulbs), without much obvious effect.
But suppose we were to embark on a serious effort at nation-building in Central America. Veteran immigration researcher David North has outlined in some detail how such a program might work, including data collection to effectively target the aid, export promotion, and even a funding source.
But even under the most optimistic of projections, it would take decades for any such effort to pay dividends in the form of reduced emigration. In other words, Vice President Harris's efforts at addressing root causes really have no connection whatsoever to the border crisis.
In fact, development is likely to cause increased migration at first, before it eventually leads to decreases. This has been infelicitously called the "migration hump", as greater resources and information combined with rising expectations make it more possible and desirable to leave than before the development occurred. This is something we saw after the passage of NAFTA, which President Clinton got through Congress only because House Republicans were persuaded that it was an immigration-control measure; instead, it sparked one of the largest migration waves in human history.
Fly Them Over the Border
The final prong of the Biden administration's plan to push the border crisis out of the news is to simply fly Central Americans straight to the U.S. in large enough numbers that people there will just wait their turn rather than try to sneak across the border.
This is a revival of what began under President Obama as the Central American Minors refugee/parole program in 2014 at the beginning of the border crisis that still plagues us. The hope was that this would provide Central Americans who had some sort of legal status in the U.S. an avenue to bring their children here without having to hire smugglers to cross the border.
But it failed to make a dent in the flow — a smaller flow than we face now, but rightly considered alarming nonetheless. The main reason was that it was designed for children and other relatives of people with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or some other non-green-card forms of provisional residence. That's a problem because the overwhelming majority of people in the U.S. hiring smugglers to bring their "unaccompanied" "minor" relatives from Central America are themselves illegal aliens.
So even when the Obama administration expanded the CAM program in 2016 to cover adult sons and daughters back in Central America, and even adult "caregivers," the number of people who qualified was still a drop in the bucket compared to the overall flow.
Biden has so far merely reopened the applications of those in the pipeline when the program was suspended in 2017 by the Trump administration. But the State Department and Homeland Security have said they will soon be accepting new applications, "with updated guidance to follow."
The shape that updated guidance may take is suggested in the comprehensive immigration bill promoted by the White House, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. The bill would amnesty virtually all illegal aliens, reduce enforcement, and double legal immigration. It also spells out a three-part plan to bring Central Americans to the U.S., many of them outside the current statutory immigration limits. The three parts are refugee processing in Central America, parole (a kind of provisional entry) for people on a green-card waiting list, and a new unlimited green card category for any Central American minor with a parent in the U.S. with a provisional legal status like TPS.
But even this approach is unlikely to divert much of the flow at the border, unless the definition of "refugee" is expanded beyond the limits of current law and reason, or parole is offered to the relatives of illegal aliens (both of which would be challenged in court, probably successfully). The numbers under a Biden resuscitation of CAM may be higher than under the Obama version, but probably not by much. Over about three years, 2014-2017, around 3,100 were admitted (with another 2,500 in the pipeline when Trump pulled the plug) – that barely amounts to a single day's apprehensions at the border this past March or April.
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When the border crisis broke into public consciousness in 2014, the Obama administration used some of these same approaches. And the 2015 numbers were, indeed, a little lower, mostly because of enforcement by Mexico, only to start rising again in 2016 once the smugglers and the migrants who paid them found ways around the Mexican efforts. It's certainly possible that we could again see a temporary dip as we did in 2015, especially if the Biden administration accedes to Mexico's increasing demands.
But none of these responses is likely to have any lasting impact on the flow of migrants until the pull factors drawing people here illegally are addressed. So long as the loopholes in our laws and policies that make it attractive to infiltrate the border (especially with a child in tow) remain, the crisis will continue.