Making Sense of a Migration Crisis

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A few weeks ago, after a reporting trip to the Rio Grande Valley, I wrote a post concluding that the influx of Central American immigrants on the border amounts to a legitimately complex situation, and that I hoped people would respond calmly and thoughtfully. Plenty of people have done so. I would point to the many locals who immediately stepped up as volunteers, and to the men and women of the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley Sector; in my experience their public information officers have an oddly anhedonic attitude about both the public and information, but most of the agents are very nice and hardworking.

A number of politicians, too, have offered serious responses. As you can see from the Washington Post’s rundown, neither side has had a unified response, but both have offered valid suggestions, a number of which are not actually mutually exclusive. Bipartisanship has reared its head: despite the total absence of rapport between Barack Obama and Rick Perry, the president described his meeting with the governor last week as “constructive”, and John Cornyn has teamed with Henry Cuellar, the Democratic representative from Laredo, to introduce legislation that would streamline enforcement proceedings for children from non-contiguous countries.  

The politics of the situation, however, have naturally devolved into mutual recriminations. Since I wrote the previous post, I’ve heard from a number of Democrats and journalists who’ve fiercely pushed back against my suggestion that Barack Obama’s 2012 executive order announcing a major change in how his administration would enforce America’s immigration law with regard to minors is worth noting in this context. The gist of their argument is that that since the order had terms and conditions, it’s ridiculous to suggest that anyone in Central America could have misinterpreted the order itself, or the president’s speech announcing it and calling on Congress to pass the DREAM Act, or the cavalcade of hope-and-change press coverage that followed, as suggesting that if they managed to make it to the United States, they would probably be allowed to stay.

The pushback on that point was so vehement that at times I felt that I was witnessing Democratic bias in the mainstream media. But let’s set aside Obama’s executive order for the time being. I want to gently address a couple of premises are fairly common among advocates of comprehensive immigration reform advocates—well-intended premises, plausible premises, but premises that don’t apply so well at the moment.

I can start by explaining how reporting on this situation scrambled my own views. For years, I’ve thought of immigration, including illegal immigration, as a mostly economic phenomenon. No surprise there: I’m from Texas, I spent six years writing for The Economist, and it is a totally reasonable framework for thinking about illegal migration from Mexico to the United States. You can see this if you look at research about aggregate migration flows or statistics about the share of undocumented workers in certain industries.

That framework informed my view of policy debates about illegal immigration and border security. I was generally opposed to the border wall, for example: if illegal immigration can be explained by neoclassical economics, the invisible hand is probably going to have a greater effect on the number of attempted crossings than a physical wall would, and it’s certainly going to be cheaper. Border security seemed like an important issue, but a largely separate one. Economic migrants usually don’t have criminal intent, and they have pretty good incentives not to get arrested; efforts to root them out don’t really improve public safety, and may distract from efforts to crack down on drug smuggling and human trafficking. I thought comprehensive immigration reform was a goal worth pursuing, not solely out of liberal do-goodery, but because of the straightforward efficiency gains for workers and businesses.

I still think all of that, if we’re talking about illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States for economic reasons. But that’s not what this situation is about. First of all, Central Americans aren’t from Mexico. (There are unaccompanied children from Mexico who enter the United States every year, but there hasn’t been a sudden influx of such children.) And the majority of the OTMs crossing don’t appear to be economic migrants. Per a Department of Homeland Security report that was leaked to Breitbart Texas, about half of the unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are boys between the ages of 15-17; young men at that age are probably hoping to work. The younger children and women, however, seem to be looking to rejoin husbands or relatives who are already here. Some of them, depending on circumstances, may be more accurately described as refugees; either way, they can’t be considered de facto guest workers. In other words, it would be great if the situation motivated Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform that would expand the number of visas available to highly skilled engineers, and so on: never let a crisis go to waste, etc. But the OTMs in question aren’t the subset of immigrants who would be most directly affected by a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Calls for such, given the context, seem slightly opportunistic.

The influx of OTMs does, on the other hand, have direct implications for border security. To be clear, the migrants themselves aren’t scary. More like the opposite of scary. It remains the case that some on the right are drastically exaggerating the threat posed by these unauthorized immigrants, and by immigrants in general. The blustering about “illeagles” and so on is off-putting. But the surge in apprehensions means that Border Patrol agents working in this historically calm sector are busier than usual. And they’re going to be busy all summer—keep in mind the striking detail that most of the OTMs are seeking out the Border Patrol agents once they arrive, rather than the other way around. Governor Perry didn’t really elevate the discussion when he paused for a photo op with Sean Hannity and a machine gun, but his request for National Guard troops on the border isn’t unreasonable and is probably, in fact, a good idea.   

And frankly, the politics of this could be a lot worse. Texas has about 1.5 million unauthorized residents, a 1200-mile international border—that’s a legal reality, not a xenophobic fantasy—and, as mentioned above, a genuinely complex situation on its hands. Despite all that, our right-wingers haven’t been as vitriolic, for the most part, as their counterparts in California, or certain stretches of enlightened western Europe. This is one of those historical junctures when Democrats would be well-advised to consider the possibility that plenty of conservatives aren’t crazy. Operational control of the border is a worthwhile goal, and one that would, in this case, help protect the immigrants, too. 

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