Edward Alden is a visiting professor of U.S.-Canada economic relations at Western Washington University and the author of The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11.
When the U.S. Border Patrol tallies the arrests of those illegally crossing the border with Mexico in the past fiscal year, which finished at the end of September, the numbers will shatter a two-decade old record. Through the end of August, the Border Patrol had already made more than two million apprehensions, well above the previous record of 1.7 million set more than two decades ago.
What those numbers don’t tell you is that for the past 30 years, the United States has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into “securing” its southern border. Yet to hear the politicians tell it, the border has never been more insecure than it is today. If U.S. leaders want to address the problem rather than just feeding a political fire, it is time to stop chasing the illusion of a secure border and start working with neighbours across the region, including Canada, to tackle the political and economic roots of the crisis.
This latest in a long series of migrant crises has been seized on by the Republican governors of Florida and Texas, who are using taxpayer money to bus and fly border crossers to Democratic strongholds, including the tony vacation island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. “In Florida, we take what is happening at the southern border seriously,” said Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis.
He certainly takes it seriously as a political stick for bashing the Democratic administration of Joe Biden over “open borders.” But even more thoughtful figures such as Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who held senior posts in the Department of Homeland Security after its 2003 formation, are prey to similar delusions. “As many resources as we have put on the border, we still don’t have it fixed,” he told an audience in Washington last week. His solution? Divert the US$80-billion recently budgeted to crack down on tax cheats and spend it on still more border enforcement.
That’s been the game plan for 30 years. Before the U.S. government began fortifying crossing points in California and Texas in the mid-1990s, there were no walls along the border with Mexico; today there is more than 1,100 kilometres of fencing, some as high as nine metres, along the 3,138-km frontier. There were no drones or fixed surveillance towers or hovering blimps. The Border Patrol had 4,000 agents along the borders; today there are more than 20,000. Each year, the U.S. government spends more on border enforcement than on the FBI and all other national law enforcement combined.
But the more Washington spends to secure the border, the more insecure the border becomes. The harder it has become to cross, the more that desperate migrants have turned to criminal cartels to assist their journey. Border enforcement has created a huge organized crime problem, which has been especially harmful for Mexico.
On the U.S. side, the decades-long obsession with border security has only shown the public how far performance has fallen short of promise. A perfectly secure border may be possible for island nations such as Australia and New Zealand, but it is not for large countries with long land borders.
The latest crisis is especially challenging because many of the border crossers are running from violence more than poverty. Most of the recent arrivals are fleeing three failed regimes in the region – Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. Under U.S. law and international obligations, those migrants have a right to request asylum protection, even if they crossed the border illegally. If they can make it to the U.S. – an often desperate and dangerous journey – they are permitted to stay pending immigration court hearings, which, given current backlogs, may be many years in the future.
More border enforcement and cheap political stunts will solve none of this. The Biden administration, to its credit, is trying to take small steps toward reform. It has launched a new initiative to resolve asylum cases – the decision on whether an individual faces persecution at home on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in a particular social group – more quickly after migrants arrive. This is controversial with immigrant rights groups, since more asylum seekers will be denied protection and removed before they can settle in the country. But it will also begin to restore some integrity to the process. The administration has also signed on to the recent Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, in which most governments in the Americas, though not some key ones, have pledged to work on a regional approach for managing migration.
Canada has a strong interest in the success of these efforts. It has been able to hide behind the 2004 “Safe Third Country Agreement,” under which asylum seekers who arrive first in the U.S. are barred from seeking protection in Canada. That agreement has been challenged by human-rights groups and is now being considered by the Supreme Court of Canada. If the deal is struck down, it could open the door to scores of asylum seekers hoping for more favourable treatment north of the border. If that happens, Canada’s border enforcement efforts are likely to be no more successful than those in the United States.