EDITOR’S NOTE: Julianne Hing is covering the collision of politics and immigration in the 2016 campaign. But we need your support to get her on the campaign trail—and Beacon Reader will double every dollar you donate! Donate today to make more of this reporting possible.
Well that was fun, wasn’t it? On immigration, the 11 assembled GOP presidential candidates (15 if you count the “downticket” opening debate) gave up nothing brand new or heretofore unknown about their stances on immigration. But for viewers who made it that far into the night’s three-hour debate (four hours, including the opening act), the candidates gave a lesson in the predictable, nearly scripted, and entirely distorted approach to any talk of immigration reform and enforcement policy in today’s politics. It’s worth examining the playbook.
The first rule is that uttering some version of the phrase, “Secure the border first,” is the price of admission into the conversation about immigration policy. This is true for Democrats and Republicans alike, but particularly so for the GOP, whose brand is defined by hawkish, tough-guy bravado.
Carly Fiorina, the night’s early favorite, mentioned it in the opening minutes of the debate. “The border’s been insecure for 25 years,” she said. Donald Trump? Well, he said it in his own way. “First of all, I want to build a wall, a wall that works. So important, and it’s a big part of it. Second of all, we have a lot of really bad dudes in this country from outside, and I think Chris [Christie] knows that, maybe as well as anybody. They go, if I get elected. First day, they’re gone. Gangs all over the place. Chicago, Baltimore, no matter where you look.” That’s an actual quote.
“What we need to do is to secure the border, and we need to do it with more than just a wall,” Chris Christie contributed.
“She loves this country as much as anybody in this room, and she wants a secure border,” Jeb Bush offered, referring to his Mexican-born wife, Columba.
“If we don’t seal the border, the rest of this stuff clearly doesn’t matter,” Ben Carson said (but only after describing fences he saw in Arizona “that were not manned” and that he said wouldn’t have stopped him as a boy).
“How do you secure the borders?” Ted Cruz asked. “Well, I’ve been leading the fight in the Senate to triple the Border Patrol, to put in place fencings and walls, to put in place a strong biometric exit/entry system.”
Another candidate—only six left to choose from, any guesses?—said: “First, we must—we must secure our border, the physical border, with—with a wall, absolutely.” (Answer: Marco Rubio.)
Later, Bush, referring to his own approach to immigration reform, reminded viewers that “securing the border” is so universally agreed upon a policy proposal that “No one disagrees with that.”
Part of the problem with the phrase “secure our borders” is that it’s spoken with such repetition as to be rendered meaningless. It begs a follow-up that almost never comes: What, exactly, constitutes a “secure” border? Is it a US-Mexico border (always, it’s the US-Mexico border) with unprecedented numbers of Border Patrol agents? Because we’ve already got that. Is it a border patrolled by drones, agents in watchtowers and on horseback, ATVs, in SUVs? Because we’ve taken care of that, too.
September 11 profoundly changed the nation’s approach to immigration policy and enforcement. Since then, every attempt by Congress to pass a bill that included some pathway to citizenship for even a subset of undocumented immigrants has failed. Instead, the United States has approached immigration policy post-9/11 as primarily a conversation about national security and enforcement. To that end, the bills that Congress has passed, like the Secure Fences Act of 2006, have called for, well, extending the US-Mexico border fence by hundreds of miles.
The federal government has increasingly called on local law-enforcement agencies to share data and resources to help it enforce immigration law—violations of which are federal, civil offenses. The United States has aggressively expanded enforcement initiatives and detention and deportation programs. For some perspective: the Department of Homeland Security requested some $13 billion in its FY 2015 budget for Customs and Border Patrol. In FY 2002, the US set aside just $5 billion for that same collection of activities, according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute.
Other departments within DHS have similarly doubled in size in the last decade. Since President Obama’s been in office, the ranks of Customs and Border Patrol officers have ballooned, and have hovered above 20,000 for the last five years, making them the nation’s largest uniformed law enforcement agency. The US-Mexico border is perhaps not as fortified as Trump imagines, but it is heavily militarized. The current fences stretch for more than one-third of the length of the nearly 2,000-mile US-Mexico border.
This isn’t what the United States has pledged to do. This is what the country has already done.
So what, again, constitutes border security? Is it, as the candidates intimate, zero successful attempts by anyone to cross from Mexico into the United States without authorization? Because if that’s the goal, lawmakers seem to confuse a secure border with an inactive one, where migration into the country falls to nothing.
Funnily enough, sending an unprecedented amount of law enforcement officers, resources, technology, and infrastructure toward the US-Mexico border would, all other things being equal, presumably result in more apprehensions of people trying to cross through the supposedly porous border. And yet, between fiscal years 2008 and 2013, the number of those caught trying to cross into the United States steadily declined. In 2012, Pew found that net migration into the country from Mexico sat at zero. Apprehensions steadily dipped even while every year, detention, deportation, and enforcement increased at a steady clip.
But if GOP presidential candidates really don’t want anyone coming to the United States without express permission first, lawmakers might be better served by looking at the reasons why people feel compelled to leave their home countries in the first place, and what actually works as a deterrent. For many people, like the wave of child migrants from Central America who sought refuge in the United States last summer, desperation to reunite with loved ones or to save their own lives outweighs their fears of whatever deterrent they meet when they arrive at the doorstep of the US, be it border patrols, the collection of fingerprints and biometric data, or the prospect of prolonged detention and deportation.
Indeed, when researchers with the University of Arizona’s National Center for Border Security and Information interviewed 1,000 people who’d been apprehended at the border, they found that people who repeatedly attempt to enter the country are more likely to be those who had lived in the United States for some period of time, and those with children, spouses, parents, or loved ones who live here. Those with more education relative to their fellow migrants, those familiar with the hazards of border crossing, and those with jobs waiting for them in the country were also more likely to migrate, researchers found. The state, height, and length of the border wall, such that it stood between people and their children, wasn’t much of a deterrent to keep them away.
And this leads me to rule number two for politicians talking about immigration today: The conversation about secure borders will crowd out substantive conversation about every other terribly pressing facet of immigration policy. Questions such as how, exactly, we’ll treat the 11 million undocumented people who currently live in the United States; how we’ll treat those who we’ve deemed undeserving of staying within the country; or when we might begin to sort out the enormous task of updating our outdated immigration system altogether. These are all the things lawmakers make sure we don’t get to talk about when we’re talking about border security.
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