U.S. Immigration and Border Policy

Immigration and Border Policy

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Shannon K. O’Neil, vice president, deputy director of Studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America Studies at CFR, provides an update on U.S. immigration and border policy, as part of CFR’s State and Local Officials Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR’s State and Local Officials initiative.


Shannon K. O'Neil

Vice President, Deputy Director of Studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations State and Local Officials Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. We are delighted to have participants from forty-one states across the country on today’s call.

As you may know, CFR is an independent and nonpartisan organization and think tank. Through our State and Local Officials Initiative we strive to serve as your go-to resource for information and analysis on international issues that affect state and local governments. We can offer you access to CFR publications, expertise on a wide range of policy topics, Foreign Affairs magazine, and personalized briefings with our fellows.

We know that many of you on the call today are engaged on immigration issues on a daily basis, and that’s why we’re having today’s conversation with Shannon O’Neil. We shared a full bio with you prior to today’s discussion so I’ll just give you the highlights on her distinguished background. Dr. O’Neil is the vice president, deputy director of studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies here at CFR. She is an expert on U.S.-Mexico relations, global trade, corruption, democracy, and immigration. She has lived and worked in Mexico and Argentina, and continues to travel extensively in Latin America. The author of Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead, which analyzes the transformation Mexico has undergone over the last three decades and why these changes matter for the United States. In addition to that book, she blogs on Latin America’s Moment on CFR.org, where she analyzes regional policy.

So just let me cite the ground rules here. We will begin with a few remarks from Dr. O’Neil. That will be on the record and we hope that you will share them with your colleagues. And then we will have a question-and-answer portion that we will keep off the record so that we can have a candid discussion. So you can ask questions of her and you can share best practices with each other.

So, Shannon, thank you very much for being with us today. It would be great if you could just give us an update on the current status of U.S. immigration, the causes of what we’re seeing, and what’s happening now on the border in terms of our policy response.

O’NEIL: Great. Thanks very much, Irina, and good afternoon, everybody. A pleasure to be with you.

And so let me just start off. You know, one of the reasons we’re talking so much about immigration, it’s not just politics but it is the reality of the United States. And while the relative number of migrants that are coming into the United States or are here in the United States is not a record high for the United States, it is the highest relative number in any of our lifetimes. And so if you look back at 1970, about—less than 5 percent of the U.S. population had been born in other countries, and today it is over 13 percent. So it has grown pretty significantly in the last several decades. We now have about forty-four million people who reside in the United States who were born elsewhere.

Now, there’s study after study that shows on the whole this is a good thing for the United States. Immigrants are more likely to start businesses. They’re more likely to employ people. They’re more likely to invent things. We’ve seen in some places, in at least some cities and towns, they help—when they come into town, they boost sales tax intakes in their, you know, spending and consumption. They help stabilize or even increase real estate prices, rental prices. They help fill empty storefronts.

They also help the United States in aggregate with the demographics. You start looking at countries like Japan and China and countries in Europe, and many policymakers are worried about going off the demographic cliff, the fact that the population is getting older and is beginning to shrink, and that is not a problem for the United States. Our demographic pyramid looks a lot better, a lot healthier than a lot of these countries precisely because of immigrants and their children.

But the costs and benefits of this immigration are not always equally distributed. And I’m sure many of you feel that in your own places, and particularly if you have large immigrant populations. So the federal government collects the Social Security taxes that, you know, many of these immigrants contribute, while you have to deal with beefing up schools and healthcare and many other things alike. So there’s much more concentrated costs there.

And we also know that the biggest benefits from immigration come when immigration is legal and it is orderly. And today, at least some of this is not orderly. And so that is what I’m going to talk and really focus on here, is what’s happening on the southern border, and particularly talk a bit about Central American and Mexican migration—so the reasons for this, the responses, and where it may all take us.

So let me focus on Central America here, and this is the real change in migration to the United States over the last five years. So since 2014 we’ve seen a big surge in Central Americans coming to the United States. In that year there were some two hundred and fifty (thousand), almost three hundred thousand that left and came to the United States. And we’ve seen it ebb and flow, the ones who get to the border, but the numbers have been increasing along the way. What happened for a few years there is Mexico just stopped more of them, deporting themselves hundreds of thousands of migrants back to Central America. But there are many reasons why they’re leaving, and I’ll just run through a few of them.

A big one that I know lots of people talk about, and it is quite true, is violence. Much of this is gang violence. Much of it is also domestic violence. That’s why you see so many women and children coming to the border, is incredibly high and troubling levels of domestic violence in these countries.

Another big challenge are economic challenges, and the need and desperation for economic opportunity somewhere else. Many of these are just—these are countries that are riven by violence and the economies are not growing.

Another part has to do with climate change and the changing landscape particularly of agricultural sectors. So just a point in fact, for Honduras over a million coffee farmers were thrown off their land in the last few years due to droughts and different kinds of pests that have moved in and just destroyed the coffee crop. So those are some of the driving factors.

And then one of the pulling factors is family reunification. And so when people leave the place they know, they try to go somewhere where they have contacts and where they know people. And for many of these, that is the United States. And particularly the young people—the kids, the unaccompanied minors who are coming—often they’re coming to the United States to join a mother or a father or other family member.

There’s another factor that’s different than the past. It’s not just this huge spike in numbers; it is in the types of migrants that are coming. And so historically from Central America, as well as from Mexico, the types of people that would come to the United States were young people, mostly men but also women, who were coming here to find jobs and support themselves and family back home. Now we are seeing many more families—women, children, sometimes husbands as well, also children coming alone. We’re seeing a different kind of people coming. And so that is part—when we look at this, quote/unquote, “crisis” that’s happening on the border, but the challenges at the border, it is, one, because of the sheer numbers that are coming, that’s true, but we have handled these numbers in the past; but it’s also the type of migrant that is coming is a very different type of migrant. They’re not coming—they’re not adults coming to work here. They’re often families coming. And they are claiming, many of them, asylum. They’re not coming here through other kinds of work permits and the like.

So let me turn a little bit to what the U.S. responses have been to this flow of people, and particularly over the last couple of years. So we have seen in the wake of this movement of people a surge in law enforcement resources. So we have seen an increase in the headcount for CBP—for Customs and Border Patrol. We’ve seen the National Guard. We’ve even seen some military heading to the border to deal with the number of people down there and solidify the border.

We’ve also seen ICE—Immigration and Customs Enforcement—increase their numbers as well and raids that they have done. So that’s both at the border, but also internally within the United States. And we’ve seen them turn more and more to using local law enforcement, so what have been called the 287(g) programs where you deputize local law enforcement to work on immigration issues. That has been growing, at least in some communities.

We’ve seen a switch or changes within the Department of Justice in the way that these types of cases—immigration cases—are dealt with: speeding up cases, limiting the discretion of judges, and working in different ways to try to make the system faster and get through the backlog, which is now over a million cases. We’ve also seen the executive branch take steps to make asylum harder in terms of the classifications particularly for the kinds of issues that Central Americans are fleeing, so ruling that gang violence and domestic violence are not a type of persecution that would fall within the rules—the universal rules or international rules governing refugees and asylum-seekers.

And then we’ve also seen—particularly in the last few months, we have seen a push to have Mexico and Central America keep these people. So one of the biggest programs is with Mexico. It’s been called the Remain in Mexico program, the Mexican—or the Migration Protection Program. And this—the idea of this program is that asylum-seekers that come up through Mexico, they come to the border, they file their asylum case, and then they have to wait in Mexico for the process to unfold. So this would be waiting months, it not years, given the backlog in Mexico, until they can come up and see an immigration judge to adjudicate their case.

On the Central American side we’ve also seen the Trump administration sign agreements with El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala that are called safe third country agreements. So the idea here is that these countries are safe countries for these asylum-seekers to go to, and that they have to first apply to asylum in those countries before they could come and apply to asylum in the United States. Those have gone ahead in both Honduras and El Salvador. In Guatemala there’s a new president and the Congress there has to actually affirm or to legislate and pass that before it would become Guatemalan law, and that has yet to happen.

So let me talk a little bit about the consequences of this before we open it up to a broader discussion. When we look at Mexico, its system—its asylum system and migration system in general, but also many of the cities along the border are being overwhelmed by the Remain in Mexico policy. So we have over fifty thousand Central Americans who are now waiting there for their cases to be adjudicated in the United States. Many of these are women and children, and they really have nowhere to go and very few resources that have been provided by the Mexican government for them. They are prey for organized crime, of which there is unfortunately a significant amount in Mexico. And so we have seen some upticks in human trafficking and the like, particularly geared or focused on the Central American migrants that are waiting for their cases.

The other thing we have seen is that Mexico’s National Guard—it’s a new body that was formed under the López Obrador administration, the president who’s been there almost a year—they’ve been pulled away from security issues to focus more and more on migrants, and particularly on closing off the southern border with Guatemala and Central America to keep more from coming. And as they’ve been pulled away from the security issue, this is a time in Mexico with record levels of violence, of homicides and others. So they’re moving away from one of their main focuses, on security, to focus on migration. And over the last few months we have actually seen an uptick in Mexicans that are applying for asylum, and in large part because of this increase in violence and growth in organized crime. So there’s sort of these side effects, at least in part from the Remain in Mexico policy—also for other reasons in Mexico, but at least in part we are seeing increased violence and the need for Mexicans to apply for asylum in the United States, which had not been the case, at least not in a widespread way, for many years.

In these Central American countries we have a challenge of these agreements are signed but these are just not safe countries, and that is why so many people are leaving them in the first place. And so there’s a challenge here of what it will mean for these people, and there’s also legal challenges that are proceeding given the discrepancy between the way the State Department and others defined the safety in these countries and then what these agreements are saying in terms of a safe third country. So we will have to see if those policies, one, ever get implemented; or even if they do, if they would remain.

And then I would just say a few things that we have learned and that we’ll face in the United States with immigration policy going forward.

One is that this whole episode or this whole flow of people coming up has shown that our asylum processes just don’t work anymore in their current form. They’re not equipped to take hundreds of thousands of people and process them in a timely and orderly and fair way, given the influx of people. And this is something that is not going to change, as we see refugees and others coming from all over the world and fleeing all sorts of different challenges. So something needs to be done about our overall asylum process and thinking through that.

We also see over the last couple years that just tightening and just restricting things at the border doesn’t change the fundamental problems that lead people to flee in the first place. So while there has been a tightening of the border since 2014 in many ways, the numbers of people leaving Central America have continued and have escalated. So if a larger world is going to deal with this problem and try to keep more Central Americans in particular in their homes, it has to be something besides just a defense at the border. So that is a bigger policy that needs to be enacted.

And then, finally and leading on from that, I would just say whether it’s this year or the years that follow—that follow from now, and whomever is in the lead and in any administration, these are challenges that are going to continue. And so they’re challenges that, yes, play out on the international level, depend very much on the federal level, but their effect will be felt on the local level, and increasingly throughout the United States as so many of these individuals have family members and friends and others that reside within, I imagine, many of your communities.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you, Shannon O’Neil. We really appreciate it. I encourage you all to go to CFR.org to see the commentary and analysis that Shannon is writing, as well as some of our other fellows here at the Council on Foreign Relations. You can follow her on Twitter at @ShannonKONeil. And obviously, please share your feedback on how we can better support the work you’re doing, as well as any ideas or suggestions for other topics you would like to tackle. Although, it seems like we need to continue the conversation on immigration and what more can be done. You can email us at [email protected]. So, again, thank you all. And thank you to Shannon O’Neil.

O’NEIL: Thank you, all.

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