The GOP and the right-wing media ecosystem are now salivating over the spike in southern border apprehensions. With Biden’s relatively high approval rating compared to Trump, they want to show how his immigration policy is a failure. This was recently the subject of a tense exchange between Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and the Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas. Analysis of this exchange shows how the real forces behind immigration get covered up by divisive politics.
An Allegation of Policy Failure
So, here is the exchange between Mr. Romney and Mr. Mayorkas.
Senator Romney launches his attack by borrowing a graph of southwest border apprehensions from Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis). I appreciate his using a graph rather than groundless allegations, and I respect Mr. Romney for telling the truth about the 2020 presidential election despite so many of his colleagues blatantly lying about it. But, he still has to make a solid argument to win the day.
Here’s the graph, so it’s easier to study.
Mr. Romney uses the graph to demand that Mr. Mayorkas admit the sharp rise in apprehensions after Biden’s inauguration is an extremely serious situation that demands a dramatic change in policies. Mr. Mayorkas counters that the spike is part of an ongoing immigration situation that has been ongoing for years and that his team is dealing with it. But, he gives little evidence to support his point, which makes him look like he is on defense. In fairness, I suspect he was blindsided by the presentation of the graph.
While Mr. Mayorkas’s response was kind of limp, there are volumes of research on immigration that we can use to analyze the situation.
The Surge Was Building During Trump Era
The Johnson graph seems to use data from the Border Patrol so that’s a good start. However, researcher Aaron Reichlin-Melnick explains that the graph is missing some data.
So it seems that the surge was building before Biden took office. The issue with the graph is that after Title 42 was implemented by the Trump administration—which required Border Patrol agents to turn back people from countries showing signs of Covid-19—the Border Patrol stopped recording those incidents as apprehensions. When Biden came into office, they started tracking them again, hence the sudden rise. The revised version of the graph shows the missing data, which makes a lot more sense anyway.
A Spring Surge Is the Norm
Another problem with the Johnson graph is the limited data shown. If the data had been shown over more years, it would have revealed a regular cyclical pattern, where border apprehensions generally rise in the spring when the weather is more conducive for travel and then drop off in the summer when it gets hot.
This pattern is shown in the New York Times chart below. For almost the last 20 years, there has been a dramatic surge of immigration in the spring, followed by a decline in the summer.
Granted, the graph only goes to 2018 and there has been a recent surge, but note the graph shows that overall total monthly apprehensions have dramatically declined over the last two decades. So, in the bigger picture the current surge is not that high and the U.S. has the capability to handle much bigger inflows, which explains Secretary Mayorkas’ view that the Border Patrol is not in danger of being overwhelmed.
Note also that the Johnson graph only seems to focus on single adults, whereas the total flow includes families and unaccompanied minors. Here we can see that the Johnson graph omits the large surge in family unit migration that happened in 2019 under the Trump administration, as shown below.
It should also be noted that the reduced apprehensions in the spring of 2020 is probably mostly due to Covid-19 lockdowns and the related closing of borders rather than any policy move. As noted by the Pew Research Center:
The decrease in apprehensions comes as the movement of migrants in the Americas and worldwide has slowed during the COVID-19 outbreak, with governments fully or partially closing their borders to stem its spread.
Without the pandemic, the influx of immigrants would have likely increased through the final years of the Trump administration.
The Real Causes are South of the Border
The Johnson graph included markers for selected policy implementations, apparently to highlight how he believesd Trump-era policies were working where Biden policies were not. As already noted, Trump’s policies likely had no real effect on a Central American’s motivation to immigrate. However, to give credit where credit is due, there has been a widespread perception in Central America the Biden-led United States will treat migrants better. From the Wall Street Journal,
Expectations were created that with the government of President Biden there would be a better treatment of migrants,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at his daily press conference on Tuesday. “And this has caused Central American migrants, and also from our country, wanting to cross the border thinking that it is easier to do so.
This perception has been leveraged by human traffickers to encourage people to pay them money for getting them to and across the border. Nontheless, this is only a minor factor. The Washington Post’s research concludes:
We analyzed monthly U.S. Customs and Border Protection data from 2012 through February and found no clear evidence that the overall increase in border crossings in 2021 can be attributed to Biden administration policies. Rather, the current increase fits a pattern of seasonal changes in undocumented immigration combined with a backlog of demand because of 2020s coronavirus border closure.
If we delve deeper into that “pattern of seasonal changes” we can see it is a catchall for a bigger dynamic. Underlying this pattern are significant root causes in Central America. Fundamentally, the flow of migration northward is driven by people seeking a better life. They are escaping poverty and violence.
A Brookings Insitute summary of research report provides strong evidence that a major factor motivating immigration is violence in the home countries.
It is an outdated notion that people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are primarily looking for economic opportunity in the United States and, therefore, should wait in line for a visa. For people fleeing these countries, waiting for a visa can result in death, rape, or forcible recruitment into crime.
On top of that, a series of events in recent years have increased the motivation of Central Ameericans to flee their home countries. In an interview with the New York Times, Vicki Gass, a policy adviser for Central America at Oxfam International, says:
They’ve had six years of ongoing droughts in these areas. They have no food, no means for employment or livelihood, and they’re eating the seeds which they would normally save for planting. And when the seeds are gone, they don’t have much more to go on.
Further, in 2020, Central America has also had the worst hurricane season in history, and this further displanced people from their homes, reduced food production, and damaged economic progress. As noted in The New York Times article:
The most immediate cause of the immigration surge may be the series of deadly hurricanes that swept through Central America last year, part of a greater trend fueled by climate change. They destroyed crops and homes, especially in Honduras, leaving an estimated nine million people displaced. Not coincidentally, Honduras and neighboring Guatemala have accounted for most of the migrants now trying to enter the United States.
Additionally, the pandemic has created a pent-up demand to migrate. According to the WSJ:
The pandemic and stay-at-home policies throughout the region have created pent-up demand to migrate, said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank. She said the factors that cause people to migrate, such as poverty, have only gotten worse during the pandemic.
Further, the U.S is seen as beginning to recover economically much faster than Latin America. So these factors together drive the desire to immigrate.
Now, not only is the U.S. economy expected to grow about 6% to 7% this year, but Mexico’s economy is also in particularly bad shape amid the pandemic. The country’s economy contracted about 8% last year. Mexico’s populist president has implemented the smallest stimulus of any major developing economy.
While the U.S. has vaccinated roughly a third of its population, Mexico has inoculated under 5%, which means the pandemic is likely to last far longer.
So, clearly Central America is not “sending people with lots of problems” as former President Trump often alleges. In fact, Mexico is not “sending” anyone. The people are sending themselves because they believe the must immigrate to survive.
If we account for environmental factors, the Johnson graph would look more like the one below, which again makes a lot more sense in explaining the factors driving the border surge:
In his allegations, Mr. Romney does casually mention root causes in Central America, but he sweeps it aside by essentially saying “we have a lot of our own problems to solve so why should we solve theirs?” There are logical, legal, and moral problems with this.
Logically, the statement is contradiction. Mr. Romney has already declared the border surge to be our problem, and he seeking to blame the Biden administration for making it worse or at least not solving it.
Dealing with the Root Causes Is in Our Own Self Interest
The Trump administration sought to “solve” the border problem by shutting down the border with both physical and legal walls, presumably to make immigration Mexico’s problem as much as possible.
This had no effect on the motivation to immigrate, only on the counting of the apprehensions and the living conditions of the immigrants. In particular, the Trump Administration’s border policies of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) and Title 42, as were shown on the Johnson graph, did nothing to solve the border situation.
They were put into effect on the downslope of long-established cyclical trend and the rise of the pandemic, so the decreased apprehensions mean nothing.
As discussed, Title 42 just rejected everyone, even those with valid asylum claims, on the basis of the pandemic. Those encounters were then omitted from the graph.
The MPP, or “remain in Mexico,” program just forced asylum seekers to stay on the other side of the border while waiting for their case to be adjudicated, rather than first entering the United States.
Since Senator Johnon specifically asserted that Mexico only complied with “remain in Mexico” under the threat of tariffs, it is interesting to note that Mexico had actually agreed to the deal months before the threat of tariffs. As reported by Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman,
The deal to avert tariffs … consists largely of actions that Mexico had already promised to take in prior discussions with the United States over the past several months, according to officials from both countries who are familiar with the negotiations.
More likely, Mr. Trump capitulated to withering backlash from practically every corner of the political world.
Having threatened Mexico with an escalating series of tariffs — starting at 5 percent and growing to 25 percent — the president faced enormous criticism from global leaders, business executives, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and members of his own staff that he risked disrupting a critical marketplace.
From the discussion in this article, we can see that, for the most part, an increase or decrease in apprehensions at the border has little to do with the public policy of any administration so far. The Trump administration’s strategy was to minimize it as a United States’ problem by keeping it outside the southern border and thus make it more of Mexico’s problem. The Obama administration (of course including Biden) attempted to affect root causes but largely to no lasting effect.
The issue here is both legal and moral. Legally, as Secretary Mayorkas maintained in his dispute with Senator Romney, current U.S. law provides rights to asylum seekers to have their case heard. While Mr. Romney then responds, “Well change the law then ,” this is not the job of the Secretary of Homeland Security. It is the job of legislators like Mr. Romney to introduce a proposed change and champion it with others.
Morally, there is the question of whether Americans should help others outside our borders who are victims of violence, political persecution, and poverty. Are we compassionate and willing to aid others regardless of wether it benefits us? Or do we want to push the problem back to Central America and make the “solve their own problems?”
Fortunately, in this case, we can decide based on our own self interest, because the United States and Central America are not independent entities. This is the second logical error in Senator Romney’s argument. In reality, we are tightly interconnected with Central America. We get critical low-cost goods and labor from Mexico that help us live the lifestyle we have, and Mexico alone is the second largest importer of our goods. So Central America is connected to us like an arm or a leg. If we allow Central America to fail, we will be severely damaging ourselves. The current border surge is only a symptom of a bigger problem, not the problem itself.