The US-Mexico Border ‘Crisis’: what is (and is not) a solution

Soundarya Balasubramani

I go to the park every day. I naturally walk by to the same spot where the ground slopes downward, sit down, and place my backpack to my right blanketed by my jacket. When you perform the same action for a few months, or years, it becomes second nhttps://immigrationforum.org/article/border-security-along-the-southwest-border-fact-sheet/ature to you. 

What about about something that we’ve been doing for thousands of years? 

About 100,000 years ago, a mutation in our gene gave us the ability to think about topics beyond just food, sex and water. We obtained the ability to strategize, believe in fiction, form groups with greater than the sociologically accepted number of 150 people, and lay traps to annihilate our foregone Neanderthal neighbors. There were a few human qualities that have been ingrained in us since then — the need for prosperity, the need to learn, the need to explore.

The first of Homo Sapiens who explored the world began in the Maghreb, an area to the west of the Nile and in Northern Africa. Slowly but surely, we expanded across the globe— Asia, Australia, Middle East, Europe, America. Combing through the centuries, the period of time that stands out the most is between the 15th and 18th century when there was an explosion in migration. Often termed the Age of Discovery, this period encompassed the likes of Christopher Columbus, Ponce de León, Hernán Cortés , and Jacques Cartier who set about the world to conquer the world via sea (Briney, 2019). We made giant strides in navigation and mapping, yet beget the slavery of Africans that lasted 300 years. While it’s hard to agree upon the extent to which migration was beneficial back then, what we can agree upon perhaps is that migration has been, and is, inevitable. 

Until World War II, migration was a phenomenon that primarily occurred  between the Europe-North America and Asia-Europe duo. The war tipped the scale, and provoked an unprecedented influx of migrants to the Western countries. While the international migrant population has increased since the war, it would be naive of us to believe the sensationalists who proclaim there’s been a massive increase in the past two decades. Numbers don’t lie: despite the increase in absolute numbers, the share of international migrants in proportion to the world’s population has remained relatively stable between 1970 and 2017 at around 2.2 to 3.5 percent (“International Migrant Stocks,” 2019).

Immigrants pass through the Ellis Island checkpoint, New York Public Library.

Immigrants pass through the Ellis Island checkpoint, New York Public Library.

The US-Mexico border crisis began filling the front pages of newspapers about a year ago when Attorney General Jeff Sessions dropped a ‘zero tolerance’ bomb on April 6th, 2018 (Shoichet, 2019). It led to public unrest as lawmakers, celebrities, and everyday Americans joined the protest against the new law. In a rare event, President Trump backtracked and reversed the policy to support family unity. However, by then, the damage had been done. In the latest series of repressive policies, President Trump moved to dramatically limit the ability of Central American to seek asylum at the U.S. border (Gurman, 2019). 

The solution to this ‘crisis’, however, is not repression. Think about it this way: you are on one side of a short wedge that’s separating a beautiful, idyllic society from yours that is nothing but dystopian. Every time you cross that wedge, you need to shell out $1000. Although your home is in disarray, and you want to cross that wedge, it’s still an entirely new society and naturally you have your reservations. Suddenly, a third-party dictator steps in and demands that the height of the wedge be increased. It’s not gotten to a point where it would become impossible to jump over, but you fear this to be an inevitable battle. You pack your bags, dismantle your life, and hope that you get to the other side alive because it’s now or never. 

If you need evidence, look no further than what happened in Western Europe in the 1970s. In the years following the oil crisis, the European government halted recruiting workers from Morocco and Turkey. To lure immigrants to depart, they provided departure bonuses, pre-return training programs and investment programs. The result? Paradoxically, it lead to massive increase in permanent settlement of Turks and Moroccans (De Haas, 2007). The same happened in Germany, Mexico, and other countries around the world.

Even more interesting perhaps, the solution to migration is not aid. In the late 1990s, confronted with the inability to manage and curb migration by repressive means, politicians, academics, and development NGOs thought, how do we weed out the roots of this problem? Somebody chimed in, ‘Development aid.’ So began a cleansing ritual where the European Union funneled money into the developing countries in the hopes of eradicating poverty and the people’s motivation to migrate. Of the €426 million kept aside as budget for 2000–6, €115 million was used for this purpose in Morocco (De Haas, 2007). 

It didn’t work. 

This idea had a few underlying assumptions that were precarious: first, the aid was short-term and too limited to have a longer term impact. Second, the migrant population did not stem out of poverty stricken neighborhoods — those who migrated were above the poverty line, but did so for a better future (Skeldon, 2014). Finally, the noble intentions of development masked political agendas of the developed nations whose motive was to simply eradicate the immigrants. 

Everyone thought migration and development acted against each other. The paradox is that the process of social and economic development in its broadest sense tends to be associated with higher levels of mobility and more migration, at least in the short-term (De Haas, 2007, p. 832). Migration is not an unwanted by-product. It is both the cause and effect of development. Those who migrate do so out of a strong conviction that something better awaits them. Unless aid —  whether in the form of income, infrastructure and technology  —  increases as fast as their aspiration does, it cannot be stifled by a lukewarm attempt at development.

Contrary to popular belief, migration brings a myriad of benefits to societies. Undoubtedly, the terror that unites all citizens on the ‘issue’ of immigration is paying extra taxes. However, based on a comprehensive study by Oxford University and Citi Research (Migration and the Economy, 2018), the confounding conclusion is that the fiscal impact of migration is either positive, or tends to be small and short-lived. Thanks to more laws such as the recent one on “public charge” (Acevedo, 2019), migrants keep receiving fewer and fewer benefits, while still paying equal taxes. In Germany, Greece, Portugal, Spain, and the U.K., migrants are less or no more dependent on social services than local citizens. 

Did you know only 57% of the global population are of working age? (Migration and the Economy, 2018) That’s right. By 2050, the number of people aged over 60 will almost double to 2 billion. Migration helps in the counter-balance since 75% of migrants are of working age; it will keep playing an increasingly vital role in coping with this transition and easing the burden on care and social security systems. 

However, the emigration of highly educated or trained people from one country to another in search of better pay or living conditions is termed ‘brain-drain.’ Despite containing 20% of the world population, the OECD countries host 66% of all high-skilled immigrants (Migration and the Economy, 2018), with a disproportionate percentage living in the U.S. High-skill and diversity breeds innovation, and there’s been no doubt about its explosion the U.S. during the past two decades. In fact, as vital as immigration has been to innovation in the host countries, it has been as detrimental in the sending countries. As much as migration can benefit nations, it can also have a negative effect. It’s important not to dismiss the fact that this phenomenon can indeed place huge strains on certain local communities - in schools, housing markets, hospitals, and transport systems - where it is concentrated. This can be avoided, however, once the government steps in to re-distribute tax receipts to address the excess burden that may fall upon certain local communities. 

The crux of the issue is the biased lens through which we’re coerced into looking at the numbers. Among the largest OECD economies, the perceived proportion of migrants is usually around twice that of the actual proportion of migrants in the population as a whole. The intense fixation by political parties on the issue of migration has more to do with political agendas than economic underpinnings. The divisive nature of many political parties on this issue has shifted the focus away from the issue itself to a back-and-forth filibuster match. 

Ultimately, we need to shift our perspective on the way we look at migration. Thinking about it as a problem to be solved contradicts millions of years of evolutionary behavior and current socio-political climates that cause people to move in the first place. The damaging political rhetoric enveloping this situation is obscuring a fundamental truth: migration also brings with it an economic boom, demographic balance, and innovation. 

The US government’s response mechanism so far has been to redirect immigrants to neighbouring countries that do not have the infrastructure or economic prosperity to fully tackle the situation and protracting the process of entry into months instead of days by not supplying enough resources at the border (Paul, 2019). We need a change. In fact, we need multiple changes. We need more stories on how migration, in all its entirely, has helped shape the world. We need more policies that help local citizens tackle both the pressures and positives that migrants carry with them across borders. We need leaders who embrace immigrants with open arms, rather than confine them in camps at the border.


Works cited:

Briney, A. (2019). A Brief History of the Age of Exploration. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/age-of-exploration-1435006

International Migrant Stocks. (2017). Retrieved from https://migrationdataportal.org/themes/international-migrant-stocks

Shoichet, C. (2019). ‘Zero tolerance’ a year later. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/04/us/immigrant-family-separations-timeline/

Gurman, S. (2019). Trump Administration Plans Tighter Asylum Rules. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-prepares-new-rule-for-asylum-seekers-at-southern-border-11563195494#comments_sector

Alvarez, P; Sands, G. (2019). Thousands more children were separated. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/17/politics/inspector-general-unaccompanied-children-immigration/index.html

Skeldon, R. (2014). Migration and development: A global perspective. Routledge.

Acevedo, N. (2019). New York, Connecticut and Vermont Sue. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/new-york-connecticut-vermont-sue-block-trump-s-public-charge-n1044276

De Haas, H. (2007). Turning the tide? Why development will not stop migration. Development and change, 38(5), 819–841.

Goldin, I., Pitt, A., Nabarro, B., & Boyle, K. (2018). Migration and the economy: Economic realities, social impacts and political choices. Citi GPS: Global Perspectives & Solutions.

Paul, C. (2019). Border Security Along the Southwest Border: Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://immigrationforum.org/article/border-security-along-the-southwest-border-fact-sheet/

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