Central American Migration Surge and Dovish Republicans

By David Seminara on June 18, 2014

Why are women and children from Central America flocking to South Texas to the tune of nearly 50,000 apprehensions on the Southwest frontier so far this year? The Obama administration contends they are fleeing poverty and escalating drug violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Plenty of others, myself included, think the primary driver is, as Center for Immigration Studies Executive Director Mark Krikorian recently put it, the administration's "various de facto amnesties for illegal aliens and its permissive enforcement practices." I'm an independent who leans more to the left on most issues, but my experience as a consular officer at the State Department leads me to believe that the Obama administration's contention is mostly bogus.

A front-page story in Tuesday's New York Times has a quote from Carmen Avila, a pregnant Guatemalan migrant who recently crossed the border, that is indicative of how immigration-related news travels across developing countries.

"I heard in Guatemala that people were caught by immigration, but then they let them go and gave them a permit," she said.

Ms. Avila's motivation and her misperception that illegal migrants were being given actual permits to stay, rather than orders to appear in court to face potential, but probably unlikely, deportation, track with my experiences adjudicating visas at embassies and consulates overseas. No immigration experience — legal or illegal — occurs in a vacuum and each story is shared, and those anecdotal tales become gospel.

For example, I can recall issuing tourist visas to a family from a specific village and then seeing a stream of others from that same place trying their luck in the coming days and weeks. A person who gets a visa returns to their home town and tells all of their co-workers, friends, and relatives, "Hey, I got the visa to go to the United States!" And then a sizeable portion of those people say, "Hey, he got one, I think I'll try my luck."

Issuing one visa inspires 20 others to apply, but refusing one visa has the opposite effect. We have a non-refundable $160 application fee for a B1/B2 visitor's visa, so when someone pays the fee, submits to being fingerprinted and interviewed, and then leaves the embassy with nothing more than a refusal slip, they return to their social circle and share that experience. When would-be migrants hear that so-and-so lost $160 and didn't get the visa, they think twice about trying their luck.

The same grapevine exists for migrants coming illegally. The details get lost as the story moves from person to person, and community to community, but the big picture so-and-so went and he got to stay — that's what people remember. The notion that we could catch and release thousands of illegal immigrants and that this news would somehow not filter back to their communities is preposterous. In an era of cheap international phone calls, e-mail, social media, and so on, word filters back to Central America in moments and spreads like wildfire.

If we got tough on the border and immediately repatriated those who broke the law, that news would also filter back: "So-and-so paid a coyote her life's savings and she got sent back." That has a powerful deterrent effect. You aren't just sending one person back; you are discouraging their entire social circle from breaking the law.

Poverty and drug violence are an undeniable part of life in Guatemala, Hondruas, El Salvador, and in parts of Mexico and other countries. But these are not new problems. It is hard to come by precise crime statistics for these countries, but a good barometer should be the State Department's tourist visa refusal rates. In order to quality for a tourist visa, applicants are required by law to prove that they have strong ties to their residence abroad that they will not abandon in order to remain illegally in the U.S. So during a time of escalating poverty and violence, it should be more difficult for applicants to prove that they won't break the law.

The State Department's visa refusal rates show a mixed picture on this score. Refusal rates went up in FY 2013 compared to FY 2012 in Guatemala (38/31), Honduras (37/30), and El Salvador (44/41). But the current refusal rates are not at historic highs, far from it. The State Department publishes figures dating back to 2006. And looking back to 2006 and 2007, the refusal rates were higher, in some cases much higher, compared to what they are now.

In Guatemala, for example, the refusal rate was 52 perecnt in 2006 and 54 percent in 2007, compared to just 38 percent now. The refusal rate in El Salvador in 2006 was a whopping 61 percent. It is now 45 percent. The situation in these countries is undeniably grim right now. But is it significantly worse now than it was, say, five-10 years ago? If it is, why is it now significantly easier for citizens of those countries to qualify for a tourist visa compared to before?

As the media and policymakers argue over the cause of the migration surge, one very obvious motivation hasn't received much attention. People do not want to live indefinitely without their families. This is common sense, but the country club, business-first wing of the GOP would like to indulge in their guestworker fantasy world where migrants are content to spend huge chunks of each year away from their families. Most people don't want to live that way — at least not for their entire working lives.

Country club Republicans want more guest workers to satisfy the business community's insatiable lust for "cheap labor", but they don't want these people to gain citizenship because they fear they'll vote Democratic and they don't want their families to join them because they see trailing family members as being more of a burden on taxpayers than a boon for big business. But I think what we are seeing now is proof that most migrants don't want to live as guest workers — legal or illegal.

The reality is that the GOP needs to understand that there is no such thing as importing "cheap labor". Either you welcome these people and their families and allow them to, hopefully, assimilate and become citizens or you shouldn't let them come at all. The problem is that this wing of the Republican Party doesn't particularly care that guest workers contribute to unemployment, underemployment, and wage erosion for working-class Americans and legal immigrants. They do care about the fiscal burden that comes with educating guestworkers' children, providing them with health care and so on.

If nothing else, the current immigration surge should serve as a reminder to country club Republicans that migrants, legal and illegal, are human beings who have families they want to be with. You can't import them a la carte and keep them in second-class citizen status to service the needs of the business community.