Responding to Immigration Influx in the United States

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Director, Immigration Policy, Bipartisan Policy Center


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

Theresa Cardinal Brown, senior advisor of immigration and border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, discusses prospects for reforms to U.S. immigration policy and how state and local officials can better prepare for and manage the influx of migrants arriving in their cities and states. 


FASKIANOS: OK. Good afternoon and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations State and Local Officials Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher focused on U.S. foreign policy. CFR is also the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine. And, as always, CFR takes new institutional positions on matters of policy.

Through our State and Local Officials Initiative, CFR serves as a resource on international issues affecting the priorities and agendas of state and local governments by providing analysis on a wide range of policy topics. So thank you all for taking the time to be with us today. We’re delighted to have over five hundred participants from forty-eight U.S. states and U.S. territories. And as a reminder, this webinar is on the record and the video and transcript will be posted on our website after the fact, at CFR.org.

We’re pleased to have Theresa Cardinal Brown with us. We shared her bio, but I will just give you a few highlights. Theresa Cardinal Brown is a senior advisor of immigration and border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and founder of the consulting firm Cardinal North Strategies, LLC. Prior to these roles, she was director of immigration and border policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She also served as the associate director of business immigration advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. So, Theresa, thank you very much for being with us to talk about trends in immigration in the United States.

The last significant reform to the U.S. immigration system was in 1986. Can you just talk about the trends you’ve seen, how politics has hindered attempts to reform immigration policy in the United States, and the way forward?

BROWN: Thank you, Irina. And thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations. And thank you to all of you who are joining us from states and localities across the country.

I will quibble a little bit with your question. I think the last major reform actually was after 1986. 1986 was the last time we had something called an amnesty. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was a compromise deal passed by Democrats in Congress and signed by Republican President Ronald Reagan that legalized some three million undocumented people in the United States at that time. The other major portion of the bill was on immigration enforcement, primarily for the first time making it illegal to hire somebody in the United States who didn’t have work authorization, and created the system that we call employer sanctions today, and the requirement that everyone who hires someone has to have them show their identity and work authorization. The bill also would have increased border patrol significantly for the time.

But since that time, actually we’ve seen several I’d considered relatively major immigration bills pass. There was a major change to the legal immigration system in 1990, signed by President George H.W. Bush, which increased the number of green cards available each year, created new categories for employment-based green cards for those of the highest skill levels. We had an immigration bill passed in 1980, actually before that, that’s created our current refugee and asylum system. In 1996, we had a major immigration enforcement bill signed by President Bill Clinton with a Republican Congress that changed how we enforce our immigration laws, both in the interior and at the border.

And then, you know, after 9/11, we saw several bills pass that had significant impacts on our immigration system in various ways, the biggest of which probably is the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which abolished the Immigration and Naturalization Service and created three agencies within DHS to manage various aspects of the immigration system. Along with, you know, our immigration courts remained in the Department of Justice and our refugee process at the State Department. So divided the immigration functions, basically, among five different Cabinet departments now.

So I think that it’s common to hear that 1986 was the last major immigration bill, but I think that’s not exactly true. And actually, if you look at that history, what you find is that Congress would regularly pass pretty major immigration bills about every ten, fifteen years or so, until about the last fifteen years. (Laughs.) You know, we saw major and minor immigration bills. And that was kind of par for the course. Congress would get together, and usually these were bipartisan bills passed on negotiations between Republicans and Democrats, that made major or minor changes to our immigration system. But we really have not seen that in the last fifteen years. As a matter of fact, it’s been become increasingly difficult for Congress to even take up the issue of immigration. And we’ve seen many attempts at immigration reform bills fail in the last twenty years.

President George W. Bush tried. Well, before 9/11, in 2000 he worked with them President Vicente Fox of Mexico to try to pass comprehensive immigration legislation. But 9/11 kind of derailed that. After the Homeland Security Act in 2003, and definitely in his second term, President Bush worked hard to try to work with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. There were two major bills that were led by Senators Kennedy and McCain that came up in Congress from 2006 to 2008. None of them succeeded. President Obama also tried, with a gang of eight Republicans and Democrats in the Senate in 2013. They did manage to pass a bill in the Senate, but it was never taken up in the House.

So there have been lots of attempts, I think, in the last fifteen, twenty years to try to address immigration reform. And they’ve been unsuccessful. Lots of different reasons for that, but I think we’re probably further away from that now, in part because it’s been so hard for Republicans and Democrats to work together on anything. And we’ve seen it most recently with the attempt of the Senate to enact bipartisan border package alongside foreign policy—foreign aid support to Ukraine, Israel, and the South China Sea in a border—in a major supplemental spending bill. So I think that’s where we are right now, that the parties are pretty far apart. And it’s not just on immigration, but maybe it’s especially noticeable on immigration that the parties are pretty far apart these days. And that’s making it harder to see reforms enacted.

FASKIANOS: Yes. And, well, certainly, this seems to be—will be one of the major issues in this election. I mean, from both the Democrats and Republicans are pointing to this. And in fact, we have both former President Trump and President Biden on the border today, as we speak.

Can you talk about why we’ve seen the number of encounters on the southwest border increase? We’ve seen it going up from—and I don’t want to put the stats out there, but, you know, you’re the expert. But it seems to be increasing. And can you talk about what is contributing to that?

BROWN: Sure. So this is another one where I want to put the frame a little wider than the last year or two. Certainly, we’ve seen significant increases in the last year or two. But I would say that the roots of what we’re seeing now really started back in the mid-2010s. And even before that it’s worth understanding what the border was like before then. So the Border Patrol was created in 1924. Before that, we really didn’t enforce immigration law at the U.S.-Mexico border. As a matter of fact, the border was in a different place for part of our history than it is now. 

But in 1924, the Border Patrol was created. And their primary mission initially was actually to prevent Chinese nationals from coming up through Mexico because we had an absolute ban on Chinese immigration during that time. And it wasn’t really about enforcing Mexicans coming across the border. It wasn’t until the 1930s and the Great Depression that we really started looking at Mexicans coming across the border for work or for other purposes. And increasingly, and for most of the next century, the vast majority—and I mean, over 80-90 percent of everybody that the Border Patrol encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border—were Mexicans. Usually adult males who were coming in to look for work, often temporarily or seasonally, and then they returned to Mexico.

And so our immigration processes, our systems, our laws, and our infrastructure—the facilities that Border Patrol had and used—were designed with the idea that we could very quickly send the Mexicans back to Mexico after we apprehended them. And most of them were not asking for asylum or any sort of protection. Most of them were not even contesting the fact that they were deportable. They would voluntarily return to Mexico, mainly because they would just turn around and try it again. And so that was the paradigm of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border for almost 100 years. That started changing significantly in 2010. And I would say it’s continued to change since then.

In 2010, we first started seeing the arrival of a very large numbers of Central Americans, non-Mexicans. And these were people who were very frequently unaccompanied children, often teenagers but some younger, and families. And those families could have very small children—infants, toddlers—from Central America coming. And not just coming and trying to sneak by Border Patrol, but coming in and saying: I need protection. I want to ask for asylum. And that process has continued to today, not just with Central Americans and not just with families, but with people from all over the western hemisphere and the Caribbean, increasingly all over the world.

And why this is a problem is that, as I mentioned, our systems were designed when we could very quickly return Mexicans back to Mexico. But the fundamental thing to understand about immigration in general is that no country is required to take back into its territory people who are not their citizens. And so there was no procedure for us to send non-Mexicans back to Mexico. And so we had to take them into custody. And if they were not going to claim asylum or were deportable, we could arrange to send them back to their country. But that required time and transportation, usually airplanes. But if they ask for asylum, our law explicitly says—and this is since 1980 and again in 1996—you are permitted to ask for asylum no matter how you arrive to the United States. It is in the immigration law.

You’re not entitled to get it, but you’re entitled to ask for it. And so we have a process that allows you to do that. It involves sending you mainly to immigration court, but sometimes in front of an asylum officer to plead your case. What started happening, however, is that the number of arrivals exceeded the infrastructure we had, the people to adjudicate those asylum claims, the facilities to hold people in, to hear those claims, very quickly. Because asylum, again, before the mid-2010s, was a tiny, tiny fraction of everybody who arrived at the border, and almost all of those people who are going to ports of entry not to Border Patrol.

So once our systems became overwhelmed, then the only thing that we really could do, because we did not have the ability to detain people at that point, was release them to a future hearing. And that started a continuation to what we see today. And as the situation in countries like Venezuela or South America became worse due to COVID, because other countries’ economies just did not recover the way ours did, more and more of those people started coming north. And, you know, even though we had managed under the Trump administration to get agreements from Mexico to take back Central Americans, for example, and other Spanish speakers, they did not agree until the Biden administration that they would take back any people from Nicaragua, or Cuba, or Venezuela, or Haiti. And so, again, those were people that came to the border in large enough numbers that they overwhelmed our processes and infrastructure.

So you know, the fundamental thing to understand about why we’re seeing what we’re seeing right now—there’s a lot of pieces to it. But one thing is that we are in a paradigm shift from where things were before. And that paradigm changed without us changing anything about our policies at the border. It started because of people fleeing conditions where they, were seeking protection to the United States. It continued when that avenue of applying for asylum became clear, it was a way that people could come into the United States and remain for some period of time. It was expanded when other populations that could not be quickly returned started arriving. Smuggling networks that were informal, usually mom and pop operations, now had become terribly sophisticated, charging tens of thousands of dollars, and are integrated with criminal drug cartels now.

So just a lot of things about the way we thought about the border and what we needed to do with the border have changed, but our laws have not, our resources have not, and many of our policies have not. And so I think that’s at the root of what we’re seeing at the border right now. And to be clear, every president since President Obama has tried within the law to do different things. President Obama was the first one to try to detain families until the court said he couldn’t. President Trump tried a lot of different policies, including getting Mexico to agree to take certain people back to Mexico under the remain in Mexico policy. Again, that was only Spanish-speaking Central Americans, not other nationalities. And that continued until COVID. And then Title 42 came in, where we were expelling people back to Mexico. But, again, Mexico had conditions who they would take, when they would take them, how many people they would take, from time to time. And anybody that exceeded that we couldn’t send right back to Mexico. And if we couldn’t send them right back to their home country, they ended up being able to stay in the United States for some period of time.

So that’s really where we’re at. And each of those policies were contested in the courts, and have been contested in the courts. So another point that I would just want to emphasize is that if Congress is not able to pass new laws, to change the procedure, provide the resources necessary to manage the number of people we see at the border right now, I don’t think it’s possible for any administration to manage it without that. Partially because all the resources have to be allocated by Congress, but also because we need to get Mexico to agree to certain things that they may or may not be willing to agree to. And our law still says that once you’re on U.S. soil, you’re our responsibility. We have to process you somehow. And everybody who arrives and turns themselves in is already on U.S. soil. So that’s something we have to figure out how to manage.

FASKIANOS: (Off mic)—unsolvable problem, given the politics of all of it, and that this is really a third rail. And you hear so much about what everybody’s doing or not doing. So. I mean, you’ve been working on this issue for a long time, right? And you were a policy adviser and the commissioner of the Office of the Commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, you were on the Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s second-stage review. And you’ve worked in the Department of Homeland Security. And you’ve also been on the Canadian border. I mean, for the next administration—be it Trump or if Biden gets reelected—I mean, what would you say? What would be your advice to them?

BROWN: My advice would be, work with Congress and get something done. My advice would be that, first of all, you’re not going to be able to do it on your own. If for no other reason than the resources required to manage the number of people arriving right now is far, far greater than we have. To give you an example right now, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are looking at budgetary shortfalls, because they’ve been spending in excess of their last year’s amounts under the continuing resolution, to some $1.2 billion, just to manage the number of arrivals right now. They were given that permission to do so, but when the FY-’24 budget finally gets passed, they have to reconcile that in the remainder of this year, which probably will mean a cut to their programs.

And so they’re going to have to cut back on what they’re doing. And that may mean fewer Border Patrol people on the line. It may mean fewer deportation flights. It may mean that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is going to be releasing people they have in detention right now. So all of these things matter. (Background noise.) I apologize. I didn’t know I was getting a call. I apologize. Stop it.

FASKIANOS: No worries.

BROWN: (Laughs.) I tried to zero out all my phones, and somebody tried to call me anyway. So I think that you can’t do this without resources. But I also think we need to fundamentally recognize the change that has happened at the border and that the laws and processes that were put in place for a very different type of migration is not necessarily going to be workable right now.

Another thing I think it’s worth understanding is that for most of the last two decades our primary strategy at managing the border was one of deterrence and prevention. And that is, how do we make it hard to cross the border? How do we have consequences for those that do, and send them back as quickly as possible? And then that was supposed to deter other people from coming. When I think the majority of migrants were from Mexico that mattered, because as I said early on Mexicans would be just sent back on their own and would turn around and come back. So to reduce that recidivism, as they called it, these consequences were meant to prevent them from coming back.

But that is a different paradigm than I think we can really talk about dealing with the kind of migration that we’re seeing right now. Because for many of them, their level of desperation to get to the United States, for them they feel it’s life and death. It isn’t a matter of I can make some more money and buy a house on land that I have back home and go back, which is a lot of the migration that we’ve seen in decades prior. This is people who literally believe that they, or their children, or their spouse, or their family will be killed or die if they stay where they are. And, you know, if you are coming three thousand miles through the jungle, and suffering unimaginable horrors along the way, if you are twenty feet from the border or, you know, fifty feet from the border and you may not be able to get across right now, but you’re going to keep trying until you do. Because the idea that you would go back is not really in your mindset.

And so I think it’s worth understanding that with that level of determination that the migrants have right now, and the smuggling organizations that will provide them all kinds of bad information to get them to make that trip—because they know that once they’re at the border, they’re not going to turn around and go home—that that strategy of deterrence and prevention is not as—it’s not likely to be as effective. And we have seen that with different policies that have been put in place since 2014. You know, we’ve had probably dozens of different policies and processes that were tried under different administrations that may have worked for a period of time. But almost always, after a couple of months, we saw the numbers go back up.

Nothing really reduced the levels of migration at the border for a persistent period of time, even during COVID, which is when it dropped the most. The numbers went down from March to May, and then starting in May they started going up again. And that was even before the election of President Biden. Now they went up substantially afterwards. And some of that was just new nationalities that, again, Mexico wouldn’t take back and we didn’t have alternatives to deal with. But, you know, it’s worth noting that that no one—no one has been really successful in dealing with this level of migration since we saw it start in 2014.

FASKIANOS: Before we go to the group—thank you for that—this is a group of state and local officials. Where do you—how do you see that they can better prepare and manage for the influx of migrants that we are seeing arriving to cities and states? And if there any resources you can recommend, we’ll circulate after the after this webinar as well, but any thoughts you have on that front. And then we’ll go to all of you for your questions, and to share things that are happening in in your communities.

BROWN: Yeah. You know, and I think that’s one of the features that makes this migration somewhat different from previous waves of migration that we saw across the U.S.-Mexico border. Increasingly, a lot of the people coming to the border are people with no prior ties to the United States. Even when we saw a lot of the Central Americans arriving, many of them had family members or friends who had migrated previously, or maybe, you know, decades before, that had settled in the United States. So they knew where they were heading and they had somebody that would receive them and take care of them while they were processing, whatever they were doing.

Increasingly, and this is particularly true of the Venezuelans and the Cubans in the Haitians, they did not have anybody in the United States. They didn’t know where they were going. They literally just—if I get across the border, I’ll figure it out later. And that meant that when they arrived in locations across the country, whether it was on their own or whether they were sent there by—(laughs)—you know, governors trying to take them away from their states, they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know where to go. And so they’re ending up relying a lot more on local government services for housing, for shelter, for food, as well as nonprofit and charitable organizations.

You know, the organizations like that along the U.S.-Mexico border had been dealing with this influx for years at this point, in far greater numbers than some of these cities have seen. But most of those people were not staying in those locations. They were transiting through to other places. Now, they’re ending up in places and they—one, they may not know where they are, or what to do once they’re there. And that is creating strains. And yet, there are other places in the country who would be happy to have people who, especially if they’re in one of the statuses that allow work authorization, to come and work.

Right now the federal government is not—they’re not managing the dispersion of migrants throughout the country the way, say, they usually do with refugees that are resettled from overseas, right? The government works with nonprofits in the United States and with local governments and state governments to resettle refugees. But these people are arriving on their own and they’re arriving with sometimes no advanced warning whatsoever. And that is providing strains. The government is providing essentially some reimbursements to state and local governments as well as to nonprofit organizations under their Shelter and Services Program. That is CBP money, but operated by FEMA. But that’s far less than what many places are laying out for their needs.

I think that, you know, what I have been hearing from state and local government officials that I’ve spoken to over the last year is, one, there’s a big desire for the federal government to do more to reimburse them. Unfortunately, that’s tied up in whether or not the government can fund itself. And we’re seeing that, you know, play out right now with these continuing resolutions. And so it’s unclear, you know, how much money Congress is willing to allocate for that. And Congress has to allocate the money. The government can’t spend any money that Congress hasn’t given it. That’s the Constitution. So that’s one place to look.

Other than that, I think, you know, what you’re starting to see is states and localities trying to learn from each other how other jurisdictions have been doing and receiving migrants. I know, for example, New York has been working—the state and city of New York—has been working with USCIS and with nonprofit or pro bono immigration attorneys and clinics in the region to do basically fairs for migrants who may have access to work authorization, but haven’t been able to file it yet, to help them file their paperwork and have it expeditedly decided by USCIS. And Chicago is trying to do that as well. So there are some of those kinds of things that people are trying to work on.

Other things I think is obviously connecting with nonprofit organizations and immigrant organizations in localities where they exist, and coordinating as much as possible between them, so that nobody feels like they are doing it all by themselves. At the end of the day, I think this is a federal government problem to solve. (Laughs.) They really—you know, immigration pretty clearly is a federal government problem. And as I said, you know, you mentioned, clearly there’s presidential politics at play here. But I actually lay the issue squarely at the feet of Congress, because it’s Congress’ job to pass immigration laws. It’s Congress’ job to legislate.

If they don’t like what an administration is doing, then they can pass a law to change and require the administration to do something different. And I think one of the biggest issues is that our law still clearly says, no matter how you arrive to the United States you’re allowed to ask for asylum. And that process and allowing that has resulted in, at this point, a couple million people who’ve been admitted into the country to pursue that claim, many of whom probably won’t end up getting asylum at the end of the day but will be here for years while that’s figured out. And that is not a sustainable process. And that the only people who can really address that is Congress.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Council Member Charles Levesque in Portsmouth Town, Rhode Island. If you can accept the unmute prompt. Thank you. Charles? OK.

BROWN: Not able to hear you.

FASKIANOS: We are not able to hear you.

Q: How we doing now?


BROWN: There we go. Now we can hear you.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.

Q: I should say, can you hear me now?


Q: My name is Charles Levesque. I’m on the Portsmouth Town Council in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, which is a small state up in New England.

Previously I was a family court magistrate. And I handled particularly petitions for people to take custody of children who had come across the border who needed that custody determination for somebody to pursue getting them a resident alien, or begin the process. My experience was that almost all the people, of course, that I saw had a family connection or a connection when they got here, although that may have been extraordinarily amorphous. In other words, I had people showing up who are taking a kid from their village, a kid that they really had no blood, if you will, relationship to, but they were willing to accept and try to help.

The thing that kind of concerns me about this conversation—and I was looking at the title, Responding to the Immigration Influx, I mean, the United States has about fifty-one million foreign visitors every year. The only difference with those is that, one, we invited them and, two, they have hotel reservations. And that is to say they have money. The people who are coming across the border, my experience, and I think—and this actually goes to my question. Is there any empirical evidence being drawn that indicates whether or not in fact the crisis on the border is not—is only a humanitarian crisis because we’re not dealing with it well, as opposed to any sort of challenge to the United States of America?

And by way of example, New Hampshire, they just had a primary, Republican, in which about 40 percent of the people indicated that immigration—that illegal immigration was a primary concern. New Hampshire has all of ten thousand potential illegal aliens. And most of them are probably Canadian, OK? And the whole—and my state of Rhode Island has not that many more. I think I did the math. It’s like 1 or 2 percent. And the thing is, if you want to find the undocumented aliens, I think for the most part all you have to do is drive into any city and you’ll see them walking to the hotels, because that’s where they work to clean. Or you can drive around your suburban neighborhoods and see whosever doing the work of lawn care. And in all likelihood, at least some of them are. But they’re not draining. They are, in fact, sustaining and in my experience, anyway, was some of them got to a point where they were able to send some assistance to their families.

One last point before you cut me off.

FASKIANOS: Oh, OK. We have lots of questions and comments. So I just want to give both Theresa a chance, and the others too, to participate.

BROWN: If I can, you’re talking about a couple of different things. And I want to kind of separate them a little bit. Right now, the estimates by most of the organizations that do these estimates, including government, are that we have between 10 ½ and 11 ½ million undocumented immigrants living in the United States right now. Pew Research Center estimates that half of them have been here at least ten years, probably a larger chunk—a large chunk have been here twenty years or more. So these are long-term resettled people who have not—who are not able to legalize their status in the United States because our laws make that extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for most people.

The people that are being released from the U.S.-Mexico border are not technically unauthorized, because the government has processed them. They have been encountered by the government, if not admitted under legal immigration status. They are here with the permission of the government to await a determination as to whether or not they get to stay. And that—and whether or not they ultimately will become part of the undocumented population in part will be whether or not they follow that process through to its completion and whether or not they are successful in getting relief from deportation, whether that’s asylum another form of relief, or if they’re ordered deported whether they leave.

I think the challenge at the border is twofold. One is, it’s clearly humanitarian in that that the number of people arriving in very desperate situations, as you mentioned, is an issue in and of itself. They are much more reliant on assistance, on charity, whether that’s from a government or from a charitable organization, than maybe past generations of migrants who arrived and, as you mentioned, had somebody they were coming to join, and would find work quickly—whether that was off the books, under the books, or with somebody else’s ID. Or, you know, maybe they had a way to get legal and could get legal status eventually. So one of the challenges is just the nature of the people who are arriving at the border right now. They’re not trying to sneak in. They’re turning themselves in. And they are in very desperate circumstances.

It is also a phenomenon that is not unique to the U.S.-Mexico border. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says there are more displaced people in the world right now than at any time since World War II, and maybe even more than then. The vast majority of those people aren’t even in the Western Hemisphere, but a lot of them are. Seven million Venezuelans have fled Venezuela. That’s one in four Venezuelans no longer live in their country. Most of them are still in South America, in other countries in South America. But they are—you know, many of them are making their way up to the United States. I think—you know, so we have a challenge of a different type of migration happening, in larger numbers than our system is able to address right now.

Whether or not we as a country have the capacity to accept that many immigrants into our—into our population, I think that is a different question. We certainly probably do. As a country, even though the United States admits more immigrants than probably any other country in the world, as a percentage of our population we’re not even in the top ten. Other countries admit a far higher percentage of their population in immigration on an annual basis than we do. And I was literally just at a briefing this morning by the Congressional Budget Office. And their latest estimates are that by 2040 deaths will exceed births in the United States. And all future population growth after that point will come from immigration. So it’s something to think about as a country. You know, how they come matters. But our capacity, I think, is probably far bigger than many people might believe.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much.

I’m going to go next to the Q&A box. J.J. Garza, you’ve written a question but you’ve also raised your hand. Do you want to just ask it yourself? And if you could identify yourself.

Q: Sure. I can just—I can just ask it. It’s fairly simple. My name is J.J. Garza. I work for Texas State Representative Mary Gonzalez from El Paso.

You’ve talked a lot about the problem at the border. But I think we have to recognize that the border is near the end of the line for the migrants that are coming up. What should we be doing on the foreign relations side with these—with the home countries of the folks that are coming to try to improve conditions so these folks don’t have to come here?

BROWN: Yeah. So that was certainly something President Biden wanted to do when he first came into office. You recall that he sent Vice President Harris in charge of working on the so-called root causes of migration in Central America. And so the theory was, if we can improve the situation—because at that point the majority of non-Mexicans were coming from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, that that would reduce the incentives to migrate and we would have fewer people coming to the border.

The challenge, and there’s lots of them—and we know this from a lot of our history of international foreign aid—is that that’s a long term process. These are countries that have had challenges of governance, that they have had civil wars and corruption, they have natural disasters, they have climate change. And so, you know, helping those countries sustain their own populations is a long-term challenge and commitment. And it’s worth doing. And we absolutely should. But it’s not something that’s going to affect immediate migration decisions. As a matter of fact, there’s some research from development experts that say, as a country starts to improve its poverty levels, you actually spur more immigration in the short run, because people have more wherewithal to migrate. It’s expensive to migrate. It’s not—it’s not inexpensive. You have to have some money to be able to do it. The poorest actually can’t migrate, because they don’t have the ability to pay the smugglers and the travel expenses necessary to do so.

I think the foreign policy area is one that we absolutely need to invest in, because these are people that are moving up through several countries. As I mentioned, many of the Venezuelans before they come to us have been living in Ecuador or Colombia for years, until the situation there became untenable for them. And now they’re moving up. Same with the Haitians that were arriving in the last year or two. Many of them are Haitians that had been resettled in Brazil. They traveled from Haiti to Brazil to work, for example, for the Rio Olympics. And then once that work dried up, found that they weren’t wanted in Brazil anymore. And so they were looking at other places to move to. Clearly Mexico is a transit country, but it’s also increasingly a destination country. Their own asylum applicants have more than quintupled in ten years, far past their capacity to process as well.

And so one of the things we need to try to do is try to speak with a lot of the other countries in the hemisphere about this migration phenomenon and where do our interests align? Are there things that we can do to help mitigate the situations of migrants where they are? Can we work with law enforcement on going after the smuggling organizations that are facilitating the migration through these countries? But right now, I would say that our interests aren’t always aligned in how we address migration. For example, Nicaragua is allowing visa-free travel to Nicaragua from pretty much anywhere in the world. And so what we’re seeing now is a lot of what we call extracontinental migrants, migrants coming from Africa or Asia, are flying into Nicaragua and making their way north from there. And Nicaragua has no problem with this. (Laughs.) So how do we—because they see it as money making for them, and a pass through to the United States. So how do we help other countries see it as their own interest to manage this entire situation much better?

And so we should be using foreign policy much more as a tool, but we have to figure out where our interests align because, you know, we can—we can try to strongarm it, and threaten, and force other countries to enforce against migrants. But they will only do that so long as, one, it’s in their interest to do. And usually what we’ve seen, for example, with Turkey trying to prevent migrants from going from the Middle East into Europe, after a while Turkey said: We don’t care that you gave us EU membership and you gave us a lot of money. This is a problem for us. We’re just going to let people pass through. (Laughs.) So, you know, we do have to do more. But I don’t think we can realistically rely on other countries to be interdictors for us in the long run.

FASKIANOS: Sonja Norton, if you can identify yourself.

Q: Hi. I am Sonja Norton. I am from Utah. I’m a county commissioner here.

And the biggest—I applaud the efforts to—I like attacking problems at the root of the problem. And I think the foreign relations is a good way to do that. But the thing I hear a lot here in our area, and I’ve heard from my friends in Texas, is it’s the burden that we’re putting on some of these states in areas that is the most troublesome. It’s putting a huge financial burden, a community burden, well-being of their communities. My husband has been in law enforcement. So I’ve dealt with law enforcement a lot. And they’re seeing a lot of offenses by these illegal immigrants. And it’s frustration. It’s really just a big frustration. And so I don’t know how do we—how do we deal with that? I know we talk about reforming the process to become a citizen. That has been talked about for years. How come that isn’t being done? And the costs—and I applaud the efforts to work with the other countries. But I think we’re having this problem here now, and we’ve also got to address those issues.

BROWN: Yeah. I mean, there’s twofold, right? There’s the folks who are coming and then what do we do with the folks that have already come? And the numbers now—as I mentioned, it’s no longer just a border problem. It’s at places around the country. You know, I think that Congress, again, has been stuck on immigration for many, many years now. And I think one of the things that might help it get unstuck, because the last time it really passed major immigration legislation was when localities—states and localities started really leaning upon their members of Congress to fix it, to do something. Because the burden, as you said, is at the localities. And, you know, I think that that pressure—we’re already seeing it somewhat. You know, the border package that was part of the Senate supplemental bill, I don’t think we would have seen that package of reforms be accepted by Democrats, frankly, but for the fact that a lot of the places receiving it, are crying uncle, are Democratic cities who are insisting that something needs to be done, and done differently.

So I think that, you know, that is the pressure that Congress needs to feel. And it’s not enough for them to say, well, it’s the other party’s fault that they didn’t do it, or this president didn’t do it, or whatever. If the responsibility is on Congress to enact legislation, which it is, then they have to figure out how to do that. And almost certainly it’s going to have to be bipartisan. I think we are in a period of our political reality in the United States where we’re not going to see large majorities of either party in the House or the Senate for the next decades. The country is too politically divided. And the way our elections are held, you know, I think what we have seen is very close majorities or, you know, 50/50 Senate. And, you know, that means that it’s very difficult to get things done with only your side, if you will.

And that that’s going to force, I hope, them to work together and make the compromises necessary. It’s not going to be the perfect bill. There is no such thing as a perfect bill, there really isn’t. Our system is actually not designed to pass a perfect bill. It’s designed to pass the bill that the majority of people can live with. But even that, if it moves the issue forward, if it makes some changes, and maybe they don’t work out the way we think, and then Congress can try again, I have said before and I will say it again, I wish immigration was boring. I wish it was not so controversial, because then people would be willing to make those kinds of deals and come back and try again if that didn’t work.

We have made it very political. And that’s made it harder to get done. And so we have to find ways to really get our leaders to work together to solve this. It’s not going to be—it’s not going to be solvable at the state or local level. But unfortunately, you are the ones that are feeling the base problems of what having this happen is causing. I think over time—and this is also true—over time, the United States is fully capable of probably incorporating all of these folks. But rapid arrivals in a short period of time in locations when they don’t have the ability to support themselves and are reliant on either unauthorized work or don’t have work, that creates all kinds of other order problems that we need to solve.

OPERATOR: Can you please repeat who you’d like to call next, please?

FASKIANOS: I would like to go next to Melissa Monich.

Q: Great. Thank you. I’m Melissa Monich. And I’m the mayor of the city of Wyoming, Ohio, which is a suburb of Cincinnati.

We have recently seen a large influx of people from Mauritania, I would guess in the last six months. Probably just in our area, eight hundred to a thousand people that were essentially not—kind of to your point—not expected. But there is a population of Mauritanians in this part of Ohio. So I think that’s why they’ve come. I also work one day a week at a food and clothing shelter that supports them. And so I’ve gotten to know a lot of these individuals. And the concern I have is some of these people are well educated. And they’re already working their way through their immigration hearings and their work visas. But we also have a big population that are coming in that have never been offered by Mauritania any formal education. So, you know, they speak their local dialect, they don’t read and write. And my concern is—and they may have an equally—Mauritania has a history of enslavement of indigenous populations, and also indentured servitude. So they may have a case for asylum, but do we have any ways in the past that we’ve taken these populations and educated, you know, these adults?

BROWN: So a couple of things. I think you’re absolutely correct. When you see a group of people go and arrive into a place where previous folks from their country have been, that’s word of mouth. One of the phenomenon that we’re seeing about the migration that’s happening right now, a lot of it is driven by social media. And people have these WhatsApp channels and Facebook posts from their countrypeople, who post: I made it, and I’m here, and there’s work, and there’s people that will support you, and come and we’ll help you, right? And so that is—that is something that draws migrants both to the United States and to particular places within the United States.

For what you said about education and training, you know, I think, traditionally the United States has done an exceptional job of integrating immigrants over time without any formalized immigrant integration policies. And I say this because, as Irina mentioned, I worked a lot with Canada and in Canada. And Canada has a very formalized, federal government-led, in partnership with the provinces and localities, immigrant integration model, with lots of money flowing from the federal government to states and localities to help new Canadians integrate, find jobs, get educated, learn language, that we just don’t have. Traditionally, the integration has happened at the community level, oftentimes by these mutual aid societies and civil societies that are made up of previous generations of immigrants from the same place.

And, you know, that has been a remarkably successful model, even if it’s not, you know, formalized. What we have now, as I mentioned with our immigration system, is a capacity issue of new arrivals and the existing supports maybe not have capacity to address the number of new arrivals in the timeframe. And so I think, you know, what states and localities can do is work with nonprofits and other civic organizations, maybe foundations and other donor organizations, to help create programs that might help these populations increase their education level, be able to work in better jobs. You know, the resources available to that you know better than I do in your community. But that’s, I think—we don’t have a formal way of really helping with that.

It’s not the federal—the federal government does not see it as its responsibility. There’s some money that can come from the U.S. Department of Education, for example, for certain types of programs. Sometimes immigrants are eligible for those. Sometimes they’re not. I’m not an expert in all of that. But those are the kind of things that you’d need to look into.

But I also want to point out something else you said, which is those who are making their way through the immigration system on their papers. People who’ve been processed at the border and released are not automatically—there’s no automatic process. They’re told that they’re in deportation proceedings, but that means they have to then go to immigration court. And they can ask for asylum, but that’s not automatic. They have to actually file an asylum application, which is a big, long form, in immigration court if they want to ask for asylum and have that decided. If they want work authorization, they almost always have to apply separately to the USCIS for that work authorization. And all of that takes assistance, usually legal assistance.

And that’s why I mentioned these clinics that were happening in New York and Chicago, because there’s a shortage of lawyers and other people who can help with the immigration processes. And one of the things that tends to happen whenever there’s a lot of people looking for immigration, help not enough people with the expertise to help them, is that there are unscrupulous people that will take advantage and will tell somebody that they’re filing their papers for some amount of money, and then have just absconded, or filed the wrong paperwork, which messes up their future immigration prospects. So there’s a lot of sort of follow-on issues that we can see happening from this amount of arrivals in a short period of time that there are no easy answers to right now. And no matter what we do at the border, we have this now population, some two to three million over the last, you know, eight years, that we are going to have to figure out what we do with.

FASKIANOS: So we have a question from Cindy Wolf, who is a council member in San Juan City, California: I understand many Central Americans and Mexicans are fleeing the cartels. Can you please talk about how that situation interacts with drug cartels operating illegal border crossing operations?

BROWN: Yeah. So for a long, long, long time when we talked about migrant smugglers at the border, these were small operations. Usually people from the towns and communities along the U.S.-Mexico border who would smuggle people across the border for, you know, a little bit of money. They were guides, is what they called themselves. Sometimes they’d be called polleros, sometimes coyotes, it depends on where they were. They were not part of organized criminal organizations. They weren’t affiliated with the drug cartels in any way.

But the drug cartels control the territory along the U.S.-Mexico border on the Mexican side. And if you wanted to take migrants through a territory controlled by a cartel, you would have to pay them essentially a toll to allow you to take them through their territory. Over time, and this is, I would say, again, because of the volume and the in the recent numbers, instead of just taking a toll from the smugglers, the criminal cartels have taken over those operations. And so now they see it as another line of business. They smuggle drugs, they launder money, and they smuggle people. And, like, they are making money—trillions of dollars—into these transnational criminal organizations.

You know, they—and it’s a line of business, just like any company has multiple lines of business. They see it as a moneymaker for them. And that makes it more dangerous for the smugglers. It makes it more dangerous for law enforcement to go after them. It also means that they have monetary incentives to keep the migration happening. And so they will advertise on these social media networks: Now’s the time to come because the law is going to change at the end of the year. One of the reasons we think we saw so many immigrants in December was because there was rumors flying and all of these channels, started by the smuggling organizations: You have to get to the border before the end of the year. They’re going to close the border in January. Or they’re going to stop taking appointments in CBP One app. So you have to get there before then.

And so there was a lot of people that were making their way up through Panama and Darien Gap to try to get to the border before December. There was no truth to that. Nothing fundamentally changed between December and January. And it didn’t happen. But that drives people to come. And so I think that, you know, not only do we have the challenge of the things that are making migrants want to migrate in the first place, all of the challenges they have in their countries of origin, but we now have these criminal organizations that are incentivizing and enabling this migration to happen as well, and will continue to try to do that because they can make money at it. And so I think that that creates another set of challenges to managing in what’s happening right now.

Irina, you’re on mute. I’m sorry.

FASKIANOS: I’m going to take the last question. Sorry that I keep doing that. From Representative Steven Galloway.

Q: Hi. Thank you for having us today.

I guess I would just have two points that I would love it if you would touch on. One is the fentanyl epidemic that’s coming through. It’s not really just immigration. We’re having thousands of deaths even here in Montana. I serve in Great Falls, Montana. You’d think we’re away from the border, but it’s not.

BROWN: Different border, but yeah.

Q: The state can’t really do anything, but yet we have an example where Texas, you know, they put guardsmen and razor wire out and they went from three thousand people a day to three people a day. So I do think that the states do have some rights to protect themselves.

BROWN: So talking about the fentanyl, what we know from what we have seized—what the government has seized of fentanyl—the vast majority, like 80-plus percent, of seizures of fentanyl happen at ports of entry. And they are being smuggled by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. There is a, you know, kind of understandable reason for that. There’s a lot more drugs that can be smuggled through a vehicle than on a person. That U.S. citizens are far less likely to be inspected thoroughly when coming through a port of entry. Ports of entry are busy. Your chances of being inspected at a port of entry are, you know, not that big, particularly at the busiest ports of entry.

That’s not to say that drugs aren’t smuggled between ports of entry. That certainly is the case, although not as—probably not as much as it used to be. When I was at DHS the biggest issue we had between ports of entry was people smuggling large loads of marijuana. Since many states have legalized marijuana in the United States, it’s not as big a deal. There’s not as much marijuana coming in from across the border. But these other drugs that are much more dangerous are. And they’re much more dangerous in much smaller amounts. You know, the other thing I would say is that the migrants that are coming across and turning themselves in are not carrying drugs, by and large—(laughs)—because they’re turning themselves in.

But the fact that we have migrants that are coming between ports of entry to seek asylum, rather than going to ports of entry—and I would make clear that that’s a choice the U.S. government has made. Previous to the 2010s when we had small numbers of people asking for asylum, they almost all came to ports of entry. Very few asked for asylum if they were caught between a port of entry, because we allowed it and because the numbers were small. But as there’s numbers started going up in the Obama administration, and continuing through to today, it was impacting the ports of entry doing the regular job of expecting the regular traffic. And so they started preventing people from coming in to ask for asylum there. And so the asylum seekers started going between ports of entry.

And as I said, now the smugglers—you know, they don’t make money if they take you to a port of entry. They make money if they smuggle you in between. So some of this is the policy choices that we have made that have facilitated this between ports of entry thing. But because Border Patrol is dealing with that, they are not as many Border Patrol agents available to see what else is crossing the border. And we know that there have been an increased number of what they call got-aways. That is where we have detected people crossing, but we did not apprehend them. In that—and we don’t know what they may or may not have been carrying.

The evidence that we have is that that is not a major vector for drugs coming into the United States. The majority of it probably is coming through ports of entry. But it’s not—it’s not nothing, either. And we—you know, if we were to change how we processed and how we incentivized migration at the border, to go back to ports of entry, and resourced the ports of entry to be able to handle that without distracting from the regular crossing, then Border Patrol could get back to, you know, looking for the people who are trying to get away and making sure that they’re not bringing in drugs or other threats to the country.

FASKIANOS: Well, with that we are at the end of our time. Theresa Cardinal Brown, thank you so much for doing this. I apologize to all of you that we could not get to all of your raised hands and written questions and comments. This is—we’ll just have to continue to talk about this issue. We really appreciate it. We will send the link to the webinar and transcript afterwards. You can follow Theresa Cardinal brown on X at @BPC_TBrown, and the Bipartisan Policy Center has a lot of wonderful resources at BipartisanPolicy.org. And, as always, we encourage you to follow us, visit us at CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for the latest developments and analysis on international trends and how they are affecting the United States. Please do share your suggestions for future webinars. You can send an email to [email protected]. So, again, thank you all for being with us. And thank you, Theresa, for doing this.

Top Stories on CFR

Immigration and Migration

Election 2024

Vice President Kamala Harris is seeking the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination in the wake of Joe Biden's exit from the race.


The closely watched elections on July 28 will determine whether incumbent President Nicolás Maduro wins a third term or allows a democratic transition.