There’s an Immigration Crisis, But It’s Not the One You Think

And look: That’s a problem, too. At the border, our options are either you send people back quickly or you release them into the U.S. for the next two or three years, during which time their case goes through a very slow process in the immigration courts. What ends up happening is that if you’re released into the U.S., you almost certainly never go back [to your home country].

There’s a very reputable study that the [Department of Homeland Security] did where they looked at what happened from 2014 to 2019 with Central American and Mexican migrants. The Mexican migrants mostly got sent back pretty quickly. But 72 percent of the Central Americans who arrived between 2014 and 2019 were admitted into the U.S., and there’s no record of their departure. And if, in fact, you’re being allowed into the U.S. and there is no real process to figure out what happened to you, that’s a lousy system.

The number of apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border is actually lower now than in the mid-2000s. Yet we hear now about a “crisis at the border” in a way we really didn’t back then. Why? Why is it seen as a crisis now, even while numbers are demonstrably smaller than 15 or 20 years ago?

And [the numbers are] still probably lower now than in 2019, they just doesn’t look that way because they now count “encounters” instead of “people,” and there’s a huge number of people who try [to enter] multiple times. So the actual numbers are even lower than two years ago, and definitely lower than the mid-2000s.

What changed? Immigration has been politicized. There used to be much more bipartisan consensus on it. Support for immigration was never equal in the two parties, but there were constituencies in each that supported it. That has changed. It has become a much more partisan issue, and I don’t know if it will ever be reset. It’s hard to tell.

That said, not all immigration debates are the same. Some people can be strongly in favor of DACA and at the same time very concerned about illegal immigration. There’s lots of nuance in this. Some Americans look at the border and say, “These are small numbers. We’ve handled bigger numbers in the past, and compared to the U.S. population, this is an infinitesimally tiny number.” For others, it raises a question of the integrity of the system and whether anything will work, because the U.S. “can’t handle its own borders.” No matter where you fall on that spectrum, policymakers realize that they have to fix the border in order to have any other conversation on immigration.

You’ve been working on immigration for decades. Have you been surprised by how the conversation on immigration has changed?

Yes, although I think it’s moved in two directions. Overall, Americans are actually more positive about immigrants than they were in the past. But at the same time, it has become much more contentious politically. It’s sort of a contradictory finding.

“Immigration” is no longer a niche topic; it’s become a national topic. People generally think immigration is pretty good for the country, but there are widely divergent ideas about what that means, and it divides along party lines more than it had before. Americans’ warm feelings towards immigration get less warm as you start talking about unauthorized immigration at the border—and sometimes, I think that’s hard for people who follow immigration closely to remember: Even though two-thirds of the public have warm feelings about immigration, a very important subset of that group is really concerned that the border be under control—and their warm feelings about immigration dissipate if they if they don’t feel it is.

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