Are Democrats walking into a trap on immigration? Three of America’s most astute and iconoclastic political commentators—David Frum, Andrew Sullivan, and Fareed Zakaria—all immigrants themselves, fear the answer is yes.
In recent days, each has made a version of the same argument. Yes, they acknowledge, President Trump’s policy of separating families at America’s southwestern border was monstrous. Democrats were right to protest it. But now, by opposing even the detention of families, Democrats are overreaching. By rejecting the harsh but necessary steps required to end America’s illegal immigration crisis, they’re becoming—or at least looking like—advocates of open borders. And when that happens, Trump wins.
I think this argument is wrong. It’s wrong because it conflates good politics with good policy. It may be true that Democrats would benefit politically by taking a harder line on illegal immigration, as Bill Clinton benefitted in the 1990s by taking a harder line on welfare and crime. I’m not sure. The contention is plausible but difficult to prove. Regardless, family detention is a terrible response to a largely fictitious crisis. It would be lovely if shrewd politics and sound policy always went hand in hand. But it’s important for commentators to acknowledge that, often, they don’t.
Frum, Sullivan, and Zakaria all believe that, while Trump last week lost the political battle over family separation, which even many Republicans rejected, Democrats risk losing the political war over immigration. In their indignation over Trump’s brutal policies and racist rhetoric, Democrats have forgotten that immigration helped make him president. “Donald Trump was elected in great part because of the crisis on the border in 2014 and 2015,” Frum writes. “The Democrats need to accept that they lost the last presidential election for a reason,” Sullivan argues, “and that their opponent’s main campaign pledge was to tackle illegal immigration.”
There’s some truth to this. As the Hamilton College political scientist Philip Klinkner has shown, using data from the American National Election Study, Trump outperformed Mitt Romney among voters with negative views of undocumented immigrants. And, crucially, he did no worse among voters with positive views. In Klinkner’s words, “Trump won in 2016 by mobilizing the minority of Americans with anti-immigration views—but only because he avoided an offsetting counter-mobilization by the majority of Americans with pro-immigration views.”
The implication of Frum, Sullivan, and Zakaria’s arguments is that Democrats can’t beat Trump merely by mobilizing pro-immigration voters. As Harry Enten and Perry Bacon Jr. of FiveThirtyEight suggested last fall, immigration may be like guns: There may be a passion gap. Anti-immigrant voters, like pro-gun voters, seem to care more. That could be changing: Trump’s family-separation policies have sparked considerable pro-immigrant passion. Then again, Hillary Clinton tried to rouse that passion by highlighting Trump’s anti-Mexican comments in 2016, and it didn’t work. Trump did better than Romney among restrictionists but no worse among Latinos.
Frum, Sullivan, and Zakaria think Democrats need a middle path. They should oppose Trump’s most brutal policies while more clearly acknowledging public anxiety about illegal immigration and endorsing measures to stop it. The theory, presumably, is that such a strategy could lure back some white voters who flipped from Obama to Trump over immigration without depressing turnout among the Democrats’ pro-immigrant, young, progressive, and minority base. In the hands of a gifted candidate, this might work. Bill Clinton appeased white voters in 1992 and 1996 with his punitive stances on welfare and crime while still galvanizing a large liberal and African American turnout. Barack Obama took a harder rhetorical line against illegal immigration in 2012 than Hillary Clinton took in 2016 yet won a larger share of the Latino vote. As I’ve noted previously, Democrats might benefit from emphasizing the virtues of assimilation, and focusing on helping immigrants learning English, thus counteracting Trump’s claim that immigration undermines national unity.
But when Frum and Sullivan shift from politics to policy, they go awry. (Zakaria, while endorsing immigration enforcement in general, doesn’t endorse any specific method.) First, they call illegal immigration a crisis—not just a political crisis for Democrats because Trump is using it to rally support, but an actual crisis because undocumented migrants are deluging America at the border. Frum says America is experiencing an “accelerating surge of illegal immigration” and a “renewed mass movement from Central America.” Sullivan says America is facing a “wave of illegal immigrants.”
This is misleading. Over the last decade, illegal immigration has been going down. Between 1983 and 2006, according to the Border Patrol, the United States apprehended roughly one million—and sometimes as many as 1.5 million—undocumented immigrants per year along America’s southwest border (where the vast majority of undocumented migrants cross). That number steadily dwindled during Obama’s presidency. In fiscal year 2016 (which began in October 2015 and ended in September 2016), it was 408,000—less than half the number in 2009.
Then Donald Trump came along, and in fiscal year 2017, the figure plunged even lower: to 304,000. The apprehension numbers remained at historic lows for the first months of FY 2018 (which, remember, began in October 2017), until they rose this March. In February, the Border Patrol apprehended 36,000 would-be crossers. That number grew to 50,000 in March. It remained at 50,000 in April and reached 51,000 in May.
This is the “surge” and “wave” that Frum and Sullivan are talking about. Yes, apprehensions rose between February and March. But that may be seasonal: Apprehensions have risen between February and March for five of the last six years. And the numbers haven’t risen significantly since; they’ve held steady. To make the increases appear alarming, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has compared this year’s March and April numbers to March and April’s of last year. But last year saw the fewest apprehensions since 1971. Even with the recent rise, over the last three months, the U.S. has apprehended roughly as many people as it apprehended during the same stretch in fiscal years 2013, 2014 and 2016—and between one-half and one-quarter as many as it did before the Obama years.
By historical standards, this isn’t a “mass movement.” It’s the opposite. And illegal immigration is unlikely to return to the levels of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s anytime soon for one simple, and under appreciated, reason: Mexican women are having fewer children. Since the early 2000s, the number of Mexicans being caught at the border has collapsed. Even a strengthening U.S. economy hasn’t lifted the numbers, because the young Mexican men who in past decades crossed the border today don’t exist in the same numbers. That’s because, since 1960, the Mexican birthrate has dropped from almost seven children per mother to just over two. Which means the pool of potential migrants is far smaller.
Migrants are still coming from violence-plagued Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The children Trump separated from their parents are overwhelmingly Central American. But Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador don’t have large populations. Combined, they contain about one-quarter as many people as Mexico. Frum and Sullivan both link America’s immigration crisis to Europe’s. But in scale, the problems are quite different. Europe is near large countries with high fertility rates. (The fertility rate is close to three in the Middle East and North Africa and near five in sub-Saharan Africa). The United States is not.
To staunch this “wave” of illegal immigration, Frum and Sullivan argue, Democrats must overcome their moral queasiness and lock immigrant families up. Sullivan proposes “massive new funding for detention facilities.” Frum excoriates liberals for opposing Ted Cruz’s plan to “hold those apprehended crossing the border illegally together with their children until they can be removed from the country as a family.” Both insist that the only alternative to family detention is, in Frum’s words, “to release the whole family into the United States until their application for asylum is resolved.” By which point, “of course, most will have disappeared from official view entirely.”
But this isn’t right either. It’s not true that the only way the government can keep track of asylum seekers is by imprisoning them. As Dara Lind has noted in Vox, the Obama administration (while, to its discredit, it detained some immigrant families) also experimented with two highly successful alternatives. The first was called “Community Supervision.” Asylum seekers were released to the care of government-funded social workers, who helped them find attorneys and places to live, and worked to ensure they showed up to court. The other was called “Intensive Supervision Alternative Program.” Asylum seekers were released with ankle bracelets linked to an app on immigration officials’ phones. The officials also regularly called and visited them. Under both programs, according to the people who ran them, asylum seekers showed up for their proceedings at rates of between 97 and 99 percent. The programs were also vastly cheaper than detention. The Trump administration closed the largest Community Supervision program last year.
These alternatives to detention underscore a broader point: Brutality isn’t the only alternative to open borders. There are plenty of smart, humane policy options in between. Yes, America takes far too long to adjudicate—and, when necessary deport—asylum seekers. But that’s largely because past administrations have showered money on the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agencies, which catch undocumented immigrants, while starving the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which employs the judges who hear their cases. Rather than respond to the current backlog by denying asylum seekers due process, as Trump wants, the government could hire many more immigration judges.
Another way to humanely reduce the number of asylum seekers crossing the Rio Grande is to make it easier for Central Americans to apply for refugee status in their home countries, as the Obama administration began doing when it established refugee processing centers in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in 2014. Even better is to help reduce violence in those countries so Central Americans don’t become refugees or asylum seekers in the first place. The United States can do that. In a six-year study, Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development found that USAID’s Central America Regional Security Initiative, which funds job training and community policing in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, among other countries, cut rates of murder and extortion in half. He also found that for every 10 fewer murders in a given Central American city, six fewer children from that city showed up at the U.S. border. Aiding El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala is not only more humane than locking up its asylum seekers. It’s cheaper too. Yet the Trump administration, in its fiscal year 2018 budget, proposed cutting aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala by 36 percent, 43 percent, and 29 percent respectively.
Critics might claim these “softer” approaches won’t deter new immigrants. Making the asylum process painful and degrading, by contrast—and virtually ensuring the rejection of claims—will discourage immigrants from trying to make it north.
But the evidence for this argument is weak. In a 2007 study of undocumented Mexican migrants, Wayne A. Cornelius of the University of California at San Diego and Idean Salehyan of the University of North Texas found that “tougher border controls have had remarkably little influence on the propensity to migrate illegally to the USA.” Surveying the academic literature for The Washington Post this March, Anna Oltman of the University of Wisconsin at Madison noted that, “researchers increasingly find that deterrence has only a weak effect on reducing unauthorized immigration.” A weak effect isn’t no effect. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies probably contributed to the drop in border crossings last year. Yet those numbers are now returning to their pre-Trump levels. In early April, in an effort to push them back down, the Trump administration announced that it would separate parents and children. Yet the number of apprehensions in both April and May was almost identical to the number in March.
The current immigration debate is a bit like the debate two years ago over crime. Crime rates, like immigration rates, have been declining for decades. But in 2016, Trump seized on an uptick in certain cities, and a few high-profile incidents, to fan hysteria. “Our Convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation,” he declared upon receiving the GOP nomination that summer. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life.” Trump used this supposed crisis to endorse police brutality, just as he now uses the immigration “crisis” to demand brutal treatment of asylum seekers. As David Graham has noted, crisis is Trump’s political strategy. He also used the 2015 ISIS attacks in Paris and San Bernardino to sow hysteria about jihadist terrorism, and to justify his support for torture and for banning Muslims from the United States. Last year, he ginned up hysteria about North Korea’s nuclear weapons to justify his threats of nuclear war.
On immigration, Frum and Sullivan think Democrats have no choice but to play Trump’s game. They should concede that there really is a crisis, and support tough—even ugly—measures to curtail it in hopes of keeping Trump from vanquishing them politically and unleashing even more brutality. Democrats have done this kind of thing before. With McCarthyism brewing, Harry Truman in 1947 empowered the FBI to ransack the federal bureaucracy looking for communists. His redbaiting may have helped him win reelection in 1948. In 1996, under assault from the recently elected Gingrich Congress, Bill Clinton signed a harsh welfare-reform law and the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act. These actions probably helped his reelection chances too.
Politicians can’t be purists. But if political commentators are going to endorse such moral compromises, it’s crucial that they at least acknowledge those compromises for what they are. The truth is that in the United States today, immigration is a challenge but not a crisis—except to the degree Trump makes it one. The United States can expedite and improve its asylum process, and reduce the number of people coming across the border, without putting families behind bars. Immigration enforcement does not require inhumanity. And saying so has never been more important than it is now.
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