Read: The Trump administration’s shifting story on family separations
That’s because the problem isn’t Nielsen’s ability to execute on Trump’s immigration policies. The problem is the immigration policies themselves. For the most part, they are impractical, ineffective, or illegal, and they are designed to solve phantom problems.
Consider Trump’s recent panic over the caravan of immigrants slowly wending its way northward through Mexico. First, the group is far away from the United States—still roughly 1,500 miles from the consensus destination of Tijuana. Second, it is numerically small compared with the overall picture of illegal immigration. (Border Patrol apprehended a little more than 300,000 people at the border in 2017; the caravan is estimated to be in the single-digit thousands.) Third, despite Trump’s fearmongering, illegal immigration continues to decline.
But there is illegal immigration, even if the scale is not commensurate to Trump’s rhetoric. The problem there is that the policies Trump wants aren’t effective or practicable. There’s the border wall, which experts say is unlikely to stop immigration, and which in any case would take years and billions of dollars to construct—billions of dollars that Congress refuses to appropriate, a barrier that’s out of Nielsen’s control.
In the absence of the wall, and as part of his preelection immigration-messaging push, Trump ordered at least 5,200 soldiers to the border in October—roughly the same number as U.S. service members in Iraq—and has said that number could reach 15,000. But it’s unclear what their purpose is. They can’t apprehend border crossers, so their role is in support and administration. Moreover, the caravan is still hundreds of miles away. So as Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Helene Cooper report, the deployed troops are sitting around in brutal heat, eating MREs, without much to do, and it’s costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
Trump has also announced plans to drastically curtail asylum applications at the border. But no matter how draconian the administration’s policies are, they don’t deter all the immigrants headed northward. Members of the caravan aren’t unaware of Trump’s views, but they’re desperate enough to try to reach the U.S. anyway. Nielsen doesn’t have control over the “push” factors that drive immigrants from their homes, especially those from the Northern Triangle.
Besides, as Dara Lind reports, it’s unclear whether the new asylum restrictions are legal. If they fail to stand up in court, they’d join a string of previous Trump immigration policies struck down by judges. The Supreme Court finally approved a much-reduced version of Trump’s Muslim travel ban after lower courts rejected earlier, more sweeping versions. The administration’s decision to separate children from their parents at the border also drew a flurry of litigation, though political pressure forced the White House to withdraw the policy before any court could. When the administration then announced it would attempt to incarcerate children in violation of an existing court agreement, a judge slapped the move down. Once again, there’s nothing Nielsen can do about any of this.