There is indeed a simmering crisis at our southern border.
It is not an influx of terrorists, and Trump administration representatives have tripped themselves up by trying to make the numbers show large numbers of suspected terrorists caught at the border. It is not a wave of immigrants from Mexico as in the past, so the fact that migration from Mexico is close to net zero doesn’t have the significance that the media wants to attribute to it. It is an ongoing surge of minors and families from Central America that we are ill-equipped as a matter of law and resources to handle.
This category of migrant is the new normal. Twenty years ago, single men accounted for the vast majority of illegal immigrants; now families or minors are almost 60 percent of apprehensions. Because of court-dictated rules limiting how long we can hold children, an anti-trafficking law that makes it impossible to easily send Central American minors home, and a broken asylum process — on top of strained resources across the board — we are routinely releasing migrants into the country, even though this is a policy that the Trump administration (rightly) opposes and desperately wants to reverse. Our inability to control the flow encourages more migrants to come.
As Dara Lind of Vox correctly observed the other day: “Over the summer and fall of 2018, it’s become clear that there really is a crisis at the border—because more families are coming, to more places, than U.S. officials have ever been capable of dealing with.” She noted how more families and minors crossed the border illegally last November than any month since DHS started breaking out this category in its numbers in 2011, and more than during the influx in 2014, which was widely referred to as a “border crisis.”
More physical barriers are part of the solution. The goal of the migrants is simply to set foot into the United States and then perhaps stay for years or never leave as their asylum claims are adjudicated. It gives us more control if it is harder to cross illegally and they can be made to apply at ports of entry. We saw a real-time example of the usefulness of a barrier when the caravan that arrived late last year in Tijuana was prevented from simply walking into the country by border fencing. The experience in places such as Yuma, Arizona, is that fencing has significantly diminished illegal crossings.
The fence isn’t a panacea, though. Even if Trump gets all the fence he wants in the current showdown, it will take years to build and, at roughly an additional 200 miles, obviously not cover the entire border. It would be more important to fix the rules around asylum and our handling of Central American families and minors so we aren’t so hamstrung. In its little-noticed current offer to Democrats in Congress, the administration proposes measures to encourage Central American minors to apply for asylum in their home countries instead of showing up here after an incredibly dangerous journey.
But this kind of policy change is being treated as a sideshow. However the shutdown fight ends, it is almost certain that the crisis at the border will rumble on.