Cynthia Allen: Our bumper sticker border wall debate
It’s been an interesting week in the news when it comes to immigration and border security.
Within hours of one another, President Donald Trump, even after reaching a deal to avert another government shutdown, defiantly declared a national emergency on the nation’s southern border, one warranting military intervention and the reallocation of at least $3.6 billion in Department of Defense construction projects; meanwhile former El Paso congressman and likely presidential hopeful Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, perhaps trying to channel the famous words of Ronald Reagan, declared in a television interview that given the opportunity he would “absolutely” take down the stretch of border wall that runs through the district he once represented.
Nothing could more perfectly capture the absurdity of the rhetoric with which we now address the complex world of immigration policy than the bumper sticker-styled statements employed by our politicians.
Build the wall; it’s a national emergency.
Tear it down. Walls end lives.
That’s the choice our leaders are offering these days, when the reality of immigration reform and border security is far more complicated.
Like many wall skeptics, I question the long-term efficacy of a border fence for many of the reasons The Federalist writer John Daniel Davidson describes in his recent compelling report from El Paso.
Ten or 15 years ago, when the existing stretches of wall were constructed, migration patterns were different. Most apprehensions were Mexican men, many of whom were sent back across the border within 24 hours as voluntary departures. And in some highly populated areas such as San Diego, constructing a wall was extremely effective at reducing illegal crossings. (Does O’Rourke favor dismantling it, too?)
Today’s migrants, mostly Central Americans, are probably no more desperate, but they — or the smugglers who coach them and transport them to the border — are far more savvy. They understand the system and its weaknesses. They know an asylum claim initiates a process that will allow a migrant to remain in the U.S. while they await a hearing, and that if they are traveling with a child, release pending that hearing is almost assured. That’s probably why the majority of apprehensions today are unaccompanied minors or people traveling with children.
As Danielson explains, “they are not trying to evade Border Patrol agents; they are seeking them out,” so they can file a claim. Most will never show for an asylum hearing.
That’s because few of their claims will hold up. Fleeing violence and poverty, seeking better living conditions and employment, are circumstances that require sympathy and compassion, but they do not warrant anything resembling legal status in the U.S.
So no, a border wall will not deter many migrants. And it won’t solve the bigger cause of illegal immigration — visa overstays, which have been growing for years and now constitute about 62 percent of undocumented immigrants, according to a recent study.
But while expanding the wall might be a boondoggle, eliminating it altogether conjures similar levels of asininity. If opening our borders would happily deny human traffickers and smugglers their livelihoods, it would certainly open another set of problems, not least of which would be to undermine our entire immigration system in one fell swoop. That O’Rourke even suggests it reveals how willing he is to cater to fringe of a party already calling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be abolished and our borders to be opened.
The most dangerous part of declarations like Trump’s and comments like O’Rourke’s is that neither politician offers them as a solution. Because whether they are on the left or the right of the border wall debate, most politicians — Trump and O’Rourke especially — are either unable or unwilling to confront the nuance involved in crafting and explaining actual policy reforms.
That’s probably because phrases like “hire more immigration judges” and “transition to Canadian-style merit-based immigration” and “mandate all employers use E-Verify” don’t fit nicely on a bumper sticker.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.