President Donald Trump has talked tough on border security and immigration enforcement, with extreme rhetoric and harsh actions. Yet his administration has not materially changed the situation at the southwest border.
As measured by apprehensions of those who cross illegally, the southwest border today looks similar to what it was under the Obama administration. In fiscal year 2017, President Trump’s first year, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 310,531 people. Apprehensions were up in fiscal year 2018 to 396,579. By comparison, apprehensions during the Obama administration’s last six years ranged from 340,252 to 486,651. President Trump’s numbers are toward the lower end, but they are not materially different.
His failure to drive down the number of unauthorized migrants results from policy prescriptions that are not grounded in the reality attendant to illegal crossing. To the contrary, the administration’s policies — zero tolerance, troops at the border, prohibiting asylum claims — have been geared to stir political effects not achieve operational results.
There are effective steps that can be taken to further reduce and deter illegal migration. Migrants continue to arrive at the border because they succeed in entering the country in a legal way by claiming asylum, establishing credible fear (a low standard), and then being granted entry to await immigration proceedings. These proceedings, however, occur years later because of a hopelessly backlogged immigration court system.
The immigration courts require an infusion of resources to hire more judges and expand capacity so that cases can be fairly resolved in weeks — not years. Since the majority of cases that go to a decision result in a denial of asylum, fair but expedited proceedings would create an effective deterrent to irregular migration. The costs of undertaking a dangerous journey more likely than not to end in deportation would close the loophole that is the essence of the illegal migration problem today. The president’s current gambit of restricting asylum by executive decree, by contrast, is both legally questionable and does not address the underlying court-capacity problem.