Donald Trump has made border security and immigration enforcement a rallying cry of his campaign and the centerpiece of his presidency. But now, as the effects of his immigration policies have become measurable, it is clear to us—three people who have worked on the issue in previous administrations—that Trump is the worst president for border security in the last 30 years.
The border is currently overwhelmed with increasing numbers of migrants, in particular Central American asylum seekers. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has reported that 66,450 persons were apprehended between the ports of entry in February, the highest monthly total in a decade. Projections for March are even worse—exceeding 100,000—with experts concerned that monthly totals could exceed 150,000 in the coming months. CBP is reassigning officers from the ports of entry, which are critically understaffed, to help Border Patrol with the crush. CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan has said the immigration system on the border is at “the breaking point.” In response, the president threatened to close the border altogether to legal crossings, a threat he walked back on Thursday and replaced with a “one-year warning” to Mexico.
Despite the administration’s attempts to shift blame for the chaos, make no mistake: It is Donald Trump himself who is responsible. Through misguided policies, political stunts and a failure of leadership, the president has created the conditions that allowed the asylum problem at the border to explode into a crisis. The solution to our current border troubles lies in reforming the U.S. asylum system and immigration courts and helping Central America address its challenges—not in a “big beautiful” wall or shutting down the border. Yet effective action on these issues has been missing. And the president has now so poisoned the political well with his approach that there is little hope of meaningful congressional action until after the next election. Unless the administration changes course, the immigration crisis will only continue to worsen.
In fiscal year 2017, the last year of the Obama administration and the first of Trump’s, 303,916 migrants were arrested by the Border Patrol. This was the lowest level in more than three decades. The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations had worked hard to tackle the problem of illegal migration through substantial increases in border security staffing, improvements in technology, innovations in strategy and improved security coordination and assistance to Mexico. Coupled with improved economic conditions in Mexico, these administrations were hugely successful in deterring and breaking the cycle of illegal crossing: Unlawful Mexican economic immigration, which had historically been the primary immigration enforcement issue at the border, dropped nearly 90 percent between 2000 and 2016.
But the nature of undocumented immigration to the U.S. has changed. Today, it is primarily driven not by Mexican economic migrants—and not by a flood of criminals, as Trump claims—but rather by large numbers of families and minors from Central America who are seeking political asylum. Although this issue first rose to public attention in 2014, the influx then was only a fraction of what it is today. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that triple the number of 2017 apprehensions—more than 900,000—will occur at the southern border in 2019. Many of those will be migrants seeking asylum, and they will descend on a border and immigration court system ill-equipped to handle those claims.
Of course, the president did not create the conditions in Central America that have driven migrants north. But his obsession with the wall, along with a series of other misguided policies, have severely hampered the U.S. government’s response to this flood. The wall has become a profound distraction and waste of time for policymakers and agency leadership as other solutions that would prove far more useful to our real immigration problems have gone neglected.
Virtually all of the desperate families from Central America who seek asylum, whether entitled to protection or not, are permitted to remain indefinitely in the United Sates while awaiting formal adjudication of their claims. These claims cannot be processed fairly, quickly and efficiently, as the immigration courts face a backlog of nearly a million cases. In fiscal year 2018, less than 15 percent of applicants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were granted asylum, but only 1.5 percent of Central American family units apprehended in 2017 have been deported. The rest have, so far, stayed. In other words, Trump, a president fixated on stopping illegal immigration, has presided over a dramatic increase in the numbers of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
It is a system that was almost designed to be exploited. Smugglers and migrant advocacy organizations like Pueblo Sin Fronteras are encouraging distressed families from Central America to travel north through Mexico, surrender to U.S. officials at the border and ask for political asylum. The ability to stay and work in the United States for years as their claims plod through the immigration court system is a powerful inducement to come here. Since the Trump administration has done so little to speed up the processing of claims, it is likely that these families will be staying in the U.S. for years. Indeed, the president’s government shutdown over the border wall only worsened the immigration court backlog.
The president’s wall is, in other words, unmoored from operational reality. A wall will not make Central America a better place to live. A wall will not stop asylum seekers from coming to the United States and being able to claim asylum. A wall will not address, let alone fix, the issues with America’s asylum system and immigration courts. The president’s attacks on Mexico and Central America, coupled with the lack of a coherent strategy for the region, have made harder the already difficult work of addressing the underlying drivers of illegal migration from Central America. Instead of working to address these problems, the president has actively made the problem worse by redirecting resources and attention to his irrelevant wall, antagonizing the people he needs to partner with to actually solve immigration problems, exacerbating backlogs and resource shortages by shutting down the government and announcing enforcement measures that cannot be sustained and which result in increasing numbers of migrants calling his bluffs.
The president may want to implement harsh border security policies, but he has faltered on the basics of governing. The administration has failed at the fundamental tasks of coordinating its plans with the relevant agencies and working through the hard problems of implementation. For instance, the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting illegal border-crossers wasted scarce prosecutorial and detention resources and could never be operationally sustained. The family separation policy—a stain on America’s moral authority—was not vetted and coordinated within the government, leading to confused implementation that still has not been resolved. Instead, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, to preserve her position, has been reduced to a yes woman, kowtowing to every pronouncement the president makes. The enduring images of the secretary’s tenure have been her lame denials of a family separation policy and lockstep support of the president’s wall demands, even as many in her department worked without pay during the shutdown. The professionals who know what it takes to solve the problem are not consulted but rather relegated to following orders.
Trump made stopping illegal immigration his signature issue. It is time to acknowledge that he has failed miserably—so we can start thinking about how to clean up the mess he has made.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Ben Rohrbaugh