How President Trump Can Solve the Immigration Dilemma and Maybe Save His Presidency, too

by Tony Wyman


President Trump gave a speech last week that, I admit, I immediately dismissed as “a dud.”  Like millions of others watching the speech, I expected Mr. Trump to announce he was declaring a state of emergency so he could make an end run around Congress and the Constitution, and redirect money from the Defense Department to build a 1954-mile-long wall between the United States and Mexico.

Instead, he delivered a nine-minute-long speech that sought to reshape his message from one depicting immigrants as dangerous, malevolent and threatening to one portraying them as victims in a “humanitarian crisis — a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul.”

Donald Trump
President Trump gave the first speech from the Oval Office of his presidency, calling upon Americans to pressure Democrats to provide $5.7 billion in funding to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Now, of course, Mr. Trump peppered his comments with widely-discredited statistics citing the violent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants crossing into the country illegally, including the assertion that border agents arrested aliens guilty or charged with “30,000 sex crimes and 4000 violent killings” over the past two years, warning “…thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country, and thousands more lives will be lost if we don’t act right now.”

While those words were red meat to the president’s most loyal supporters, they were the least important in his speech.  After all, he has repeated similar fallacious numbers over the years to inflamed audiences of red-hatted supporters who chanted “Build that wall” everytime Mr. Trump promised Mexico would foot the bill, making absolutely no headway with the majority of Americans who are too wise, brave or compassionate to see imperiled families of desepatate Latinos seeking a better life away from crime, oppression, violence and poverty for themselves and their children as a real threat to American security.

And though Mr. Trump’s promise to build a 30′-tall wall from one end of our border with Mexico to the other was a winner in the Republican primary, it appears even the president is starting to recognize it is a loser in his battle with Congress.  Polling shows 59% oppose the wall and the president’s approval rating has dropped to 44%, with 56% disapproving since the shutdown.

That’s where the most important words in his speech can help Mr. Trump not only get enough support from the American people to move the nation towards real and effective measures to reduce undocumented immigration, but also improve his approval rating with voters. Here are those words:

This is a humanitarian crisis — a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul.

Last month, 20,000 migrant children were illegally brought into the United States — a dramatic increase.  These children are used as human pawns by vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs.  One in three women are sexually assaulted on the dangerous trek up through Mexico.  Women and children are the biggest victims, by far, of our broken system.

This is the tragic reality of illegal immigration on our southern border.  This is the cycle of human suffering that I am determined to end.

Granted, those were only 96 words of compassion and caring out of a 1117-word speech that also included venom and hyperbole directed at the very same people.  But, if Mr. Trump and his advisers want to take a different approach that might actually succeed, it’s a start.

By reshaping his message away from depicting migrants as violent criminals intent upon doing our nation harm to one of compassion and empathy for the people making the long, arduous and, often, dangerous trek from their dysfunctional homeland to ours (pun intended), the president would have a much greater chance of gaining the support of Americans who look at migrants with a sympathetic eye.  Instead of selling his wall as an impenetrable obstacle designed to keep out bloody-handed invaders, Mr. Trump could repackage his evolving barrier into one intended to guide migrants into the safety of the arms of compassionate border patrol agents.

Sure, that would require Mr. Trump to reverse years of bile directed at people of color, like the Central Park Five he wrongly accused of rape in 1989, demanding they be put to death for a crime DNA evidence proved they did not commit, but if he truly wants to solve the problem, he’s going to have to abandon his hardline stance, disappoint the Steve King, white nationalist province of MAGAstan, and take on a new, more nuanced approach.

More Than Just a Wall

So, what should that new approach include? A lot of what needs to be done was included in his speech, already.

The proposal from Homeland Security includes cutting-edge technology for detecting drugs, weapons, illegal contraband, and many other things.  We have requested more agents, immigration judges, and bed space to process the sharp rise in unlawful migration fueled by our very strong economy.  Our plan also contains an urgent request for humanitarian assistance and medical support.

No one with a real understanding of what is happening on our border ever believed that a wall alone would solve the problem of illegal immigration – there are simply too many barriers, legal and geographical, to make such a wall practical – but, as part of a more sophisticated, 21st Century approach to border control, a wall could play a significant role.

We already have walls and fences up on roughly one-third of the border and spent $2.4 billion adding more barriers between 2007 and 2015.  Much of California‘s 141-mile border with Mexico is already fenced off, thanks to legislation passed during the Bush 43 administration. Arizona has three wall sections that cost taxpayers more than $500 million to build. In 2018, the federal government authorized $73 million to build vehicle and pedestrian barriers along a 20-mile stretch of territory and another $3.5 million to relocate fencing constructed in 2000 mistakenly on Mexican territory to the U.S. side of the border.  And Texas was authorized almost $700 million for border walls in 2018 along 37 miles of El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley.

Wall
Efforts to acquire land to build sections of wall in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas included seizures of private land along the path of the barrier.

While border patrol agents and law enforcement officers will tell you that arrests in areas where there are walls have dropped, they also report that immigrants simply moved to other areas.  Even the conservative Heritage Foundation, a strong supporter of President Trump and his calls for more barriers to immigration, believes a wall like the one the president is demanding would be ineffective.  David Inserra, Heritage’s analyst for homeland security, had this to say about a holistic wall like the one Mr. Trump proposes:

Congress and the administration could build a large wall on a mountain in the middle of a desert in New Mexico, but that would not be the best use of limited security dollars. The mountainous terrain already acts as a natural wall that prevents border crossing.

Furthermore, a wall in a remote desert would barely slow down illegal immigrants. It would only take them a few minutes to get over the wall, but after that it would take them hours to reach the nearest town or road—the proverbial speedbump in the desert.

In addition to failing to stop illegal immigrants, walls don’t do anything to address the five biggest problems we face right now.

Five Things a Wall Won’t Fix

Fans of walls seem to think they will fix problems we already have with illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and the ability of terrorists to enter the country.  The reality, however, is walls will have little, if any, impact at all on these issues.  So, what are the biggest problems we face?

First, there are already 10.7 million illegal immigrants living in this country.  Not only will a wall do nothing to reduce that number, it might actually make it worse.  Read my story here on why walls and other barriers have actually led to increases in the number of illegal immigrants staying in the country.  Most of these folks entered the country through legal ports of entry and overstayed their visas.  In fact, the Department of Homeland Security released data that said of the 45 million people entering the country by air or water on student, business or tourist visas, 416,500 were still in the country a year after their visas expired.  Those numbers were just for those who came by air or water, not those who drove in through land entry points.

Second, drug smugglers aren’t coming into the country through the desert; they are coming in through our ports.  University of California Professor of City and Regional Planning Michael Deer says smugglers prefer to enter legally because the risk to their goods is less at legal ports of entry.

There are only a dozen-or-so official “ports of entry” along the border line. They are highly regulated and policed, but cartels much prefer to exploit their predictability and rationality than to scatter resources across open expanses of desert and river. Traffickers have carefully studied how security operates in each checkpoint, which means they can observe and instantly respond to weaknesses, such as when inspections are relaxed in order to speed up the through-flow of traffic, or when a corrupt inspection officer with a willing blind eye comes on duty.

It is simply easier and more reliable to smuggle drugs through tightly controlled border crossings than it is to expose shipments to the uncertainties of the desert where weather, bandits and military anti-drug operations make trips too risky.

Third, economic, political and social instability in South and Latin American nations is driving migrants to risk all to come to America. Poverty rates in Bolivia hit 48% in 2018.  In Venezuela, a once wealthy nation living on oil revenues, poverty affects 90% of the people.

Other nations to our south are experiencing widespread corruption, uncontrolled violent criminal activity, brutal political repression and economic collapse.  As long as conditions like these exist in our hemisphere, migrants will risk all to leave their countries in search of a better life in ours.

Fourth, terrorists don’t cross the desert to enter the United States.  The 19 Islamic terrorists who murdered nearly 3000 Americans on 9/11 entered the country on student visas.  Since that attack, more than 80% of those killed or captured while committing terrorist acts on American soil where Americans, themselves.  And only one was a Mexican.

Fifth, our immigration laws and courts are floundering.  Jurists around the country have warned for years that a major cause of illegal immigration stems from the frustration that people seeking to enter legally experience when their cases are held up by court backlogs that go on for years.  Instead of awaiting their day in court, many immigrants give up and melt into American society after losing confidence their petition will be heard.

Amnesty

In 1986, Republican President Ronald Reagan and Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming faced strong opposition in their party to the idea of granting amnesty to the millions of illegal immigrants living in the country at the time.  Opponents correctly pointed out that it was unfair to those who were following the rules and waiting their turn for American citizenship to grant a blanket amnesty to those who broke the rules and entered the country illegally.

Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan signed an amnesty bill that gave citizenship to 2.7 million aliens living in the country illegally.

But President Reagan and Senator Simpson defended their position and pushed through legislation that granted amnesty for two reasons: first, they believed amnesty was needed to protect and integrate immigrants who were living here under the radar of law enforcement and labor law regulators. “The work to be done is to avoid seeing this nation populated with a furtive illegal subclass of human beings who are afraid to go to the cops, afraid to go to a hospital … or afraid to go to their employer,” wrote Sen. Simpson to the president.

And, second, they feared politicians would use immigrants – legal and illegal – as scapegoats, turning Americans against them as unscrupulous leaders blamed foreigners living in the country for whatever problems could be blamed on them.  “If we do not choose to have immigration reform in the near future, the alternative will not just be the status quo,” Senator Simpson said on the floor of the Senate while introducing the bill in 1986. “No, the alternative instead will be an increased public intolerance — a failure of compassion, if you will — toward all forms of immigration and types of entrants.”

At the time, there were five million people living in the country without documentation.  After 18 months, the time immigrants were granted temporary resident status while awaiting completion of their permanent resident applications, 2.7 million became American citizens.  Three-hundred thousand were rejected or withdrew and two million were ineligible because they arrived after 1982, the drop off date for eligibility under the program.

Not only did the amnesty agreement turn a $100 million profit for the government, collected from fees charged applicants, it also led to a decline in the number of illegal immigrants entering the country.  And, it boosted the economy as millions of workers were now able to participate fully in the job market and earn higher wages while paying into the tax and retirement systems.

While opponents of immigration, especially those motivated by racial hatred and fear, would oppose any efforts to grant legal citizenship to the 10.7 million people living in this country illegally, perhaps withdrawing their support from President Trump should he announce such a plan, the benefit to the country would be undeniable.

First off, while the number of illegal immigrants living in this country is down from highs in the 1990s, the number remaining is still high and it seems unlikely it will drop to insignificant levels any time soon.  Continuing to condemn these immigrants to being people, as President Reagan put it, “who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society,” is simply bad economics.  Just as President Reagan’s amnesty plan improved the financial situations of the millions of immigrants who were able to leave the hidden economy in this country to join the real one, the same would happen for those currently hiding “in the shadows” today.  The boost to the nation’s economy as millions of hard-working, creative and productive people are freed to take advantage of living in a free market like ours where they can exploit their talents and work ethic to the fullest of their ability would be significant.

And, second, the benefit to society would be just as great.  There is currently both an underclass of people living in this country who are forced to hide in fear and an unwillingness in American society to address them.  They are unable to help law enforcement police their communities.  They cannot volunteer in schools or coach youth soccer teams.  They are not able to reach out for help or to offer help to those in need for fear of discovery.  That all would change with amnesty.

And, at the same time, we, as a society, send mixed signals.  For years, our government has vacillated back and forth on immigrants.  One day, our government threatens to treat immigrants harshly, describing them as criminals and rounding them up in deportation sweeps.  And, the next day, we offer them jobs, free health care and education.

Our businesses and farms lure them in, because the demand for labor in this country exceeds the supply, and then our politicians scapegoat immigrants when they need the votes. We are polarized on this issue like never before and, as long as President Trump continues to unfailingly misrepresent immigrants as “rapists, murderers and drug dealers,” that won’t change.  Bringing immigrants out in the light, as President Reagan did in 1986, might reverse that polarization as Americans see the kind of people immigrants really are.

Amnesty – But an End to Illegal Immigration

Regardless of the benefits of amnesty, no one should propose or agree to it, however, if nothing effective is going to be done to prevent another explosion of illegal immigrants entering the country.  If the American people are going to be asked to welcome 10.7 million immigrants into full citizenship, they ought to be assured the country will never again be forced to deal with this problem again.

Border agents for years have been telling politicians what they need to tighten up the borders and it is time Washington listens.  Instead of using illegal immigration as a bogeyman to scare up votes every two years, Congress should get serious about solving the problem.  Here’s what we need:

Immigration Courts

The number one thing you hear most often from border security experts is we need to put money, people and resources into beefing up our Immigration Court system.  As of May 2018, there were 714,067 cases pending before immigration courts, some four years old.

And the government shutdown is making the backlog worse. According to Judge Dana Leigh Marks of the National Association of Immigration Judges, the shutdown will be “devastating” and could add three to four years to the wait for some cases.  Hearings for immigrants who weren’t detained are being removed from the dockets right now because there is no funding to hear their cases.  The problem, when government opens back up, is there may not be space on court schedules to work these cases back in for years, according to Susan Long, who gathers data on federal spending for Syracuse University.

Tony Payan, Director of the Rice University think tank on immigration issues, the Mexican Center of the Baker Institute, agrees that more funding for immigration courts should be the top priority.  He believes spending money on a wall without investing in more courts to handle the “exploding” number of asylum claims judges are facing would be “an almost absurd proposition.”  He said that refugees, living in crammed, unsanitary and dangerous facilities in Mexico are losing hope their cases will ever be heard and are simply choosing to “make a run for the border.”  He believes moving cases through the system faster will “depress their frustration…so they won’t breach the border.”

Technology 

If you talk with border patrol agents, like former U.S. Customs Service Director Gil Kerlikowske, they will tell you what they need most is improved technology.  He lists cameras, sensors, satelites, drones, surveillance aircraft and other surveillance equipment that would make border agents more effective and able to spot migrants before they disappear in the United States.

But agents also need cell phone towers erected in the most remote areas of the border and radios that can reach further than the ones they have now.  Many areas are so isolated that the communication devices agents use simply don’t work.  This not only makes them less effective in their jobs, it also exposes agents to risks they shouldn’t be asked to take.

Personnel 

Making the lack of adequate technology problem worse, the number of border and customs agents is well below the minimum mandated by Congress.  Before more agents can be added, the agencies have to get their numbers up to where they are supposed to be now.

Border agents.
In 2018, 900 border agents left the service with only 523 hiring on to replace them. Pres. Trump has called for adding an additional 5000 agents in 2019, but the service is unable to meet their current minimal staffing levels.

National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd told members of the House that his agency is “currently almost 2,000 agents below the congressional floor of 21,370,” leaving agents sometimes up to 20 minutes away from receiving back-up when making an apprehension.

As someone who has had to struggle to arrest a violent subject on more than one occasion, that kind of response time is equivalent to no response at all,” Mr. Judd told representatives.

Alex Nowrasteh, immigration analyst at the CATO Institute, agrees more agents are needed. But he also believes more courts and housing facilities for asylum seekers would free up agents to spend more time looking for drugs and providing more security at the border.  “(Asylum seekers) could line up outside ports of entry and come through orderly,” he said. “That makes it a lot easier, a lot cheaper and it removes the criminal threat.”

Barriers

“I’m not allergic to the notion of a wall,” said Andrew Selee, president of the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute. “I just don’t think it’s needed in most places.”  He thinks fencing has benefit in areas where it makes sense, an opinion shared by the author of the book “Border Security,” a study of the U.S.-Mexico border, James Phelps.  Mr. Phelps thinks fencing in high traffic areas, such as San Diego and towns in border states like Texas and Arizona, makes sense.  “Nothing is 100% effective,” he said, “But if you want to stop drugs and people, you’ve got to build a fence … You need to spend a billion dollars on fences in high-traffic areas.”

Address the Root Cause

None of the tools we give the men and women on the border will stop the flood of immigrants, though, if we don’t attack the real cause of why people from South and Latin America are fleeing their home nations and coming here.

Sonia Nazario, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Enrique’s Journey,” the story of a 17-year-old boy who traveled from Honduras, looking for his mother who left her starving family 11 years earlier to find work in the United States, wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2017 that the way to end illegal immigration is make the countries from which migrants flee worth living in again.

It sounds radical, but this is what works: Instead of adding fire power, fencing and drones at the border, we must deal directly with powerful forces pushing people out of their home countries and toward the U.S. The majority of the border-crossers in the Southwest come from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — all three are among the most dangerous nations on Earth.

She pointed out in her editorial that, in the past, the vast majority of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. were young men looking for work.  But now, the largest growth is in families with children seeking refuge from unlivable conditions in their home country.

Despite the mounting obstacles, the data show a tenfold increase in immigrant children coming to the U.S. alone since Enrique’s journey, she wrote.  In 2002, 6,800 minors were detained alone at the border by U.S. agents. In 2014, the count was 68,000, and (in 2017), even with Mexico deporting more Central Americans than the U.S., it was 60,000. 

The reason is simple, as one expert who tracks child migration told me: “When your house is on fire, you find a way to get out.” Enrique wanted to find his mother; today’s migrants are running for their lives.

Instead of spending billions on walls, drones, agents and other tools, Ms. Nazario urged the U.S. to invest, instead, in programs that improve the lives of Latinos in their home countries.  She wrote about one program that had a major impact in the town of Rivera Hernández, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, “the world’s murder capitol for four years running.”  She described a city littered with dead bodies as six rival gangs fought each other for control, where police reported seeing gang members playing soccer with the head of one of their victims.

But, in 2014, the U.S. started a pilot program in the city to counter the influence of gangs and to empower brave members of the community to fight back.  The program was based on violence prevention efforts made in Boston and Los Angeles.

Outreach centers were set up where kids could find mentors, vocational training and help getting jobs, effectively cutting off the lifeblood of gangs: new recruits. Another program, modeled on L.A.’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development program, known as GYRD, used nine risk factors to identify children likely to join gangs. After a year of family counseling, they were 77% less likely than their peers to commit crimes or abuse alcohol or drugs.

The U.S. also went after killers. In 96% of Honduran homicide cases, no one is ever convicted. Witnesses know that if they testify, they’re dead. The U.S. helped fund the Assn. for a More Just Society, which investigates killings in Rivera Hernández and six other violent neighborhoods. They coax witnesses to testify, anonymously, cloaked in a black burqa. Now prosecutors are getting guilty verdicts in more than half of the homicides in these neighborhoods. In two years, killings in Rivera Hernández plummeted 62%.

While the city is still riddled with violence and the gangs that have destroyed lives and terrorized the community still exist, the success of the program is undeniable.  In 2014, before the program started making an impact, 18,000 kids from the area traveled to the U.S. border to escape the violence.  By 2016, that number was cut in half.

The situation in Venezuela is even worse.  Thanks to the corrupt, brutal and oppressive regime of Nicolas Maduro and the mismanagement of the nation’s economy by his kleptocratic government, more than 90% of that once affluent country now lives in poverty.  In 2018, due to food shortages and exploding inflation rates, hitting nearly 1,400,000% and doubling costs every 19 days, the typical Venezuelan lost 24 pounds.

Protestors
Demonstrators protesting against the collapse of the Venezuelan economy due to the mismanagement of the corrupt Maduro government.

The result is millions of people are fleeing the country.  According to the BBC, 10% of the country – 3 million people – have left since 2014, with another million expected to leave in 2019.  Most fleeing went to neighboring Colombia, where 1 million Venezuelans now reside.  500,000 went to Peru, but the third most, 290,224, went to the U.S.

Building walls and militarizing our borders may make some headway in slowing illegal immigration, but it will do nothing to stop the desire of mothers and fathers to provide their children with lives worth living.  When a mother watches her children starve because criminals running her government have stolen the nation blind to enrich themselves, no wall or border agent is going to stop her from fleeing the despair in which her children are condemned to live.

If Mr. Trump wants to have a real impact on reducing illegal immigration, the place he should be investing is not our border with Mexico, its where the problem originates.  As Ms. Nazario wrote,

The United States has every reason and every right to protect its borders, but building a wall and militarizing it is a foolish waste of money. We must do something better. We must offer compassion for vulnerable children running from harm and work to reduce unlawful migration to keep more children and families safe in their home countries. Honduran violence-prevention programs cost the U.S. about $100 million a year. That’s pocket change compared with the cost of the wall or the billions we spend dealing with migrants and refugees when they arrive at our doorstep.

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