President Trump has once again threatened to close the border with Mexico. Such threats have proved unfounded to date, but this time will be different.
The omnibus spending legislation passed in mid-February has gutted border control by preventing the government from detaining adults traveling with children for more than three days. This has precipitated an entirely foreseeable crisis. As Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies tweeted: “ICE may not remove any sponsor or *potential sponsor* or *member of a household* of a UAC [unaccompanied minor]. That's de facto sanctuary for anyone near a UAC. Ridiculous.” But true, unleashing the all too predictable torrent of illegal immigration.
We have forecast the pace of border apprehensions to continue to rise, both quickly and materially. Various polls by Gallup and Pew Research have found that about one-third of all Latin Americans would like to move to the US. Applied to the 30 million people of the Northern Triangle countries, up to 10 million of their citizens could come to the US. Indeed, one study categorizes 50% of Hondurans as living in 'extreme poverty'. That's 5 million people in Honduras alone with ample motivation to come to the US.
Now, not all those with a stated desire to leave would, and not all at the same time. Nevertheless, one to two million could likely be induced to move, notably as current US asylum law probably represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to emigrate to the US. As migrants are well aware that the opportunity is certainly fleeting, most will come in the next few months.
This in turn is creating a surge of illegal immigration, rising from 48,000 in January, to 66,000 in February, and to 100,000 expected for March. By mid-summer, another 500,000 could claim asylum in the US.
What should the Trump administration do?
Doing nothing is always the most under-appreciated option. Trump could wait for the situation to deteriorate so badly that a public outcry forces Congress to act. On the other hand, the outcry could be directed at the President rather than Congress. Moreover, the timing of public reaction is unpredictable, even as 100,000 or more migrants pour over the border every month. Most of those claiming asylum will ultimately remain in the US, legally or illegally. Therefore, delay amounts to expanding the permanent undocumented population. Even worse, US asylum law is so perverse that half of those entering are minors, each of whom will cost taxpayers an average of $15,000 / year. While the President might delay a response for a few weeks, there seems little benefit in waiting and more reason to act now.
But what steps should the President take?
He can withhold foreign aid to the Northern Triangle countries, but this hardly makes those countries more desirable places to stay or provides additional resources to local governments to stem the outward flow.
Perhaps Customs and Border Patrol can marginally change the way illegal immigrants are handled, but that is certainly not evident yet.
That leaves the Mexican border. Closing the border will not prevent migrants from entering illegally and claiming asylum. Nor is the border crisis of Mexico’s making – although Mexico can certainly try harder to prevent migrants from crossing that country.
Instead, the real intended audience for closing the border is the US Congress. Closing the border is the equivalent of shutting down the government, just in a different venue. It escalates the crisis, putting the onus back on the Congress to provide the administration the tools to properly control the tsunami of illegal immigration. In political terms, this is a kamikaze tactic, but what other option does the President have?
Congress would be well advised to act preemptively. Democrats have no surer way to lose moderate districts than to be seen as the purveyors of chaos, lawlessness and impotence. They would be far better served by reiterating their support for the humane treatment of migrants, but acknowledging that the bar has been set too low and that standards needs tightening.
In the meanwhile, if you have a hankering for Mexican food, best indulge it this week. And if you are in the business of trading with Mexico, you might want to call House Speaker Pelosi’s office and tell her to fix the colossal mess the Democrats have made at the border.