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Obsessed with Optics: How a Border Crisis Emerged from Decades of Inconsistent Immigration Policy

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White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki validated widespread political concerns of a “crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border Thursday, unintentionally using the word in a daily news briefing, amid questions of pandemic-related cooperation with Central America stakeholders.

“There have been expectations set outside of, unrelated to, any vaccine doses or request for them, that they would be partners in the crisis on the border,” Psaki said.

She would later backpedal on that phrasing when asked if her remarks represented a changing outlook from President Joe Biden, who has avoided sounding any alarms on the southwest border situation.

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As crowded detention centers reportedly struggling to maintain basic living standards and the Biden administration scrambling to open overflow facilities, however, immigration experts are more resolved on what to call the current state of affairs.

According to The Heritage Foundation, the migrant surge has already led to border crossing totals six times higher than what was seen under the Obama administration. Government data reveals a 10-year high of 75,000 arrests were made at the border in January, and conditions have only worsened, with March looking to break other records from the height of the 2019 caravan crisis.

“What’s happening at the border is undoubtedly a crisis — a fact that has been clear to the American people for some time,” Heritage Foundation senior fellow Lora Ries wrote in a statement received by The Western Journal.

“It’s encouraging that the White House press secretary, who speaks on behalf of the president of the United States, chose to call it a crisis today, as well. Hopefully this rhetoric turns to swift action in securing our border, deporting those here illegally, and enforcing our laws.”

The Optical Illusion

Visiting fellow Ken Cuccinelli, a prominent fixture in the Trump immigration system, was less certain good faith action would be taken by the administration, citing increased political emphasis on optics as a barrier to progress.

“When you look back at what we did to stem the tide of illegal immigration, a couple of the lessons come out,” said Cuccinelli, once the acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security.

“One, perceptions make all the difference in the world. You saw that with the Trump effect in 2017, and you see with the Biden effect in 2021. The perception of others in other parts of the world about what our policy really is at the street level, not what laws are on the books, is the dominant factor about whether people come illegally.”

Nobody knew this better than President Donald Trump, Cuccinelli told The Western Journal. The former president made waves when he first stepped into the 2016 Republican presidential primary, his sights set on a broken U.S. immigration system. But blunt rhetoric and the thought of a wall on the southwest border quickly landed the businessman in hot water with establishment figures.

Xenophobic and racist were terms that dominated round-the-clock coverage of the campaign, and those labels would stick with Trump throughout his four-year Oval Office tenure.

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From deportation, barrier construction and family separation to anti-gang operations, legal reform and caravan obstruction, the perception was set. The Trump administration was a threat to America’s image as an asylum for immigrants, whether its policy contributions were positive or not.

The Democratic approach, on the other hand, has long remained tailored toward a public relations outcome — a common thread epitomized by the Biden campaign.

In 2020, the former vice president and senator promised a return to “fair and humane” immigration policy. From the trail to the debate stage, the campaign hammered Trump for his immigration rhetoric and treatment of detained migrants, assuring Biden’s administration would make legal immigration easier and provide a long-awaited “pathway to citizenship” for illegal residents.

Upon taking office, however, little changed. Early executive orders sparked renewed hope for Central and South American migrants, and big promises became an even bigger surge in border apprehensions. This flood of migrants only made those promises harder to keep, of course, as overcrowding and poor living conditions forced the administration to open extra detention facilities.

“Moral. This is their word.” Cuccinelli said. “But if we’re going to be a nation at all, we have to maintain our own sovereignty. We have to maintain our border.”

“There are something like 80 million desperately poor people around the world. We couldn’t take that. We couldn’t absorb that. We’re better off keeping the strength and vitality of our nation, maintaining our legal immigration system, fighting off illegal immigration and helping the world improve and develop and get, yes, richer, more prosperous so people can thrive and survive at home,” he added.

“That isn’t going to happen with an administration that gives the impression that there are no rules to come into our country, and that’s what  the Biden effect is.”

Biden is not solely responsible for the border crisis, however. As experts told The Western Journal in recent weeks, the disastrous state of affairs at the border is decades in the making.

Setting the Stage, However Sloppily

For centuries, a poorly respected southwest border has plagued the young nations on either side, with a bloody two-year war stemming from the U.S. annexation of Texas in 1846. But when the dust settled on the Mexican-American War, and Washington claimed the contested lands, nearly two centuries of adversarial partnership began between the peoples of the region.

In the period that followed, inspection stations arose at southwest ports of entry, as goods and labor began to flow across the border alongside smuggled liquor that was then-banned in the states.

As relations normalized, the majority of border crossings were a result of agricultural opportunity — particularly amid the throes of the Great War, which left America’s working men a world away in the first major global conflict of the century. The delicate balance would not last, of course, with post-war economic downturn and “dust bowl” serving to steal opportunities away from not only the migrant Mexican workforce, but returning veterans as well.

Only a Second World War would reinvigorate the market, and with American men once again fighting on foreign soil, the government recognized a renewed need for regional labor. The solution was the Bracero Program of 1942, which pulled Mexican workers back to the American farmlands. It was a double-edged sword, however, as the resulting decades gave way to a major influx in illegal migration.

When authorities finally turned their attention to the mass violation of quotas, they were short of options. Witness to major advances in the Mexican economy, President Dwight Eisenhower eventually opted to send four million migrants home in a deportation plan derogatorily entitled “Operation Wetback.”

The display created polarities in the American political system, with leaders across the aisle deeming immigration a primary policy issue, but few able to find a consensus position on how best to address the situation.

In the 1960s a Democratic Party led by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson would take a different approach, scrubbing immigration quotas and restoring guest worker programs in an effort to place America opposite the communist bloc as a moral, capitalist refuge.

The well-intentioned policy had broad consequences. In just five years, illegal immigration tripled, with four of five migrants coming from Mexico, as the nation’s elite kept a stranglehold on the gains from increased economic development. The problem was later exacerbated when the Mexican economic boom went bust a decade later, in the 1980s.

Widely recognized as a crisis, the situation had seen little forward motion in Washington. Under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, two commissions had been formed to study the issue, and though determinations were made about the negative impacts of illegal immigration on American wages, the establishment was still unable to decide whether lenience or a firm hand would solve the dilemma.

It was not until the Reagan era that Congress would come together on a comprehensive program that provided both: the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which funded increased border security and granted amnesty to more than half of the five million illegal immigrants then living in the states.

The plan’s restricting arm eventually proved weak, of course, and while later administrations sought to tighten the legal system and prevent illegal immigration by strengthening the Mexican economy through partnerships like the North American Free Trade Agreement, the tides would ebb and flow for another two decades.

By the time President George W. Bush and Barack Obama stepped up for their at-bats on the issue, millions more illegal migrants were shown to be living stateside, and inaction had once again arisen from partisan gridlock on comprehensive immigration reform.

Bush, for his part, saw a strict 2007 attempt at reform die in the Senate, without the votes to receive a final decision on the floor. Obama, on the other hand, enforced more deportations than any president since Eisenhower, but saw bipartisan Senate reforms die on the desk of Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner — which in turn prompted the Democratic president to pursue more lenient immigration policy by way of executive authority.

Princely Holes to Patch

According to Cuccinelli, the decades-long lack of consistency has put the U.S. in a precarious situation. There is no longer a “silver bullet” when it comes to solving immigration.

Instead, a “patchwork” will be necessary. That was, apparently, a goal of the early Trump administration, which had focused much of its pre-COVID energy on not only law enforcement solutions, but continental partnerships that left Central America more fiscally and legally responsible for assessing asylum claims and stemming the tide of illegal immigration.

Is Biden to blame for the border crisis?

“It basically takes a lot of, I don’t want to call them little, but a whole lot of different solutions working together,” Cuccinelli said. “So, one of the most galling things I hear out of this administration, and that’s a long list, is to hear them say we inherited a broken system.”

“Well, look at what they did in the first few weeks. They literally tore out all of those agreements. They announced they wouldn’t deport people. So it’s a classic, ‘I’m saying the opposite of reality, and if I say it enough, you’ll believe it,'” he added.

“It is easy to destroy. It is hard to build. We built a comprehensive system to deal with illegal immigration. They are destroying that comprehensive system to deal with illegal immigration without an alternative plan for enforcement.”


The former DHS official went on to dress down a recently unveiled White House plan for comprehensive immigration reform, suggesting its failure to in any way address illegal immigration was “not a bug” but a “feature,” factored in for political purposes.

Taken up late last month, the Biden plan would proliferate work visas, prohibit the federal use of words like “illegal alien” and loosen restrictions on family-based immigration. It would also provide an eight-year amnesty track, naturalizing and enfranchising nearly all of the 11 to 22 million illegal migrants currently living stateside.

A lack of border security provisions or other restrictions, however, is sure to keep Republicans — and even some Democrats — from the negotiating table. Reports indicate an early Democratic whip count failed to churn up support for the bill, leaving caucus leadership to delay efforts at passage.

“Can you really vote for immigration changes that don’t address that problem while it’s going on in the background?” Cuccinelli asked.

“This administration, they want a hundred-thousand illegals to come in every month. Why do they want that? Well, let’s look at the amnesty bills they’re also carrying forward and let’s look at the voting bill that they would mandate states register so many of these people, even though it’s illegal for them to vote, but they push them onto the voting rolls. This is all part of a much bigger plan by this administration.”

This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.

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