The Huddled Masses At The Border

Our immigration paradigm has shifted. Our policies need to as well.

Sep 22, 2023
Migrants jump over the barbed wire fence in Eagle Pass, Texas on August 25. (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty)

Lampedusa is a picturesque, rocky Italian island in the Mediterranean between Tunisia and Sicily, with gorgeous beaches and a small population of around 6,000. In just five days last week, its population tripled, as 11,000 migrants showed up in at least 199 boats, overwhelming resources. The center for accommodating migrants was designed for 600. So far, in this year alone, some 127,000 migrants reached Italy, more than twice the numbers who arrived in all of 2022.

Lampedusa itself was the place where one of the worst shipwrecks in Mediterranean history happened a decade ago, when a migrant boat caught fire and sank, leaving more than 360 dead, after the Italian authorities ignored SOS signals. In June of this year, a migrant shipwreck in Greece took more than 600 lives. The human toll of this mass migration is incalculable.

Cross the globe to Eagle Pass in Texas, and you’re struck by the similarities. About 2,500 migrants arrived in just one day last week, completely swamping local resources and requiring the mayor to declare a state of emergency. El Paso is now handling around 1,200 migrants every day. Since March 2021, the Biden administration has given first 250,000 and now an additional 500,000 migrants from Venezuela formal permission to work in the US: three-quarters of a million illegal migrants in two-and-a-half years. According to Mexico’s tally, there were 142,000 encounters with illegal migrants at the border in the first two weeks of this month alone — a 60 percent increase on July and likely another monthly record.

We are told these vast numbers of migrants are merely being given “temporary protection” — but most of these “temporary” measures become permanent, and we know that in any given year, only a minuscule fraction of illegal immigrants are ever deported. All that has happened this past week is that Democratic politicians have begged the administration to quicken the pace of de facto legalization so their social services are not entirely overwhelmed. The governor of Massachusetts, for example, recently declared a state of emergency and slammed the White House for “a federal crisis of inaction that is many years in the making.” (It’s not just this White House’s fault, of course. The failure is Congressional as well and goes back decades.)

As soon as the migrants arrive, in the US and the EU, domestic and international law kicks in, and places have to be found to accommodate the travelers. These desperate travelers, it’s important to note, are not people persecuted for political or religious reasons. They are not genuinely seeking asylum. They are understandably seeking a better life in more developed countries, and there is no stopping the influx.

Climate change is one reason: many of the new migrants to Lampedusa are fleeing the terrible floods in Libya. Another is dysfunctional government — from Libya (broken by the West’s toppling of Gaddafi) and Tunisia to Venezuela and Haiti. Another factor still is population growth in the global south, particularly Africa, vastly outstripping that in the north. Another still is the revolution in information technology so that the West is so much more viscerally present in the minds of many in the developing world — and the contrast with their own lives devastating.

No one is particularly happy about this, apart from the migrants themselves, who have often endured extreme misery in their journey to a better future. But there seems to be nothing that can be done. Every rushed decision to accommodate the newcomers — like the Venezuelan decision this week — further incentivizes the next wave.

Doing deals with countries along the route — Tunisia and Libya in the EU, and Mexico in the US — has only met partial success. The NYT reported this week how the Mexican border with Guatemala is weakening, as a mob stormed a refugee aid office on Monday, after long delays in getting appointments with US officials. The largest freight train company in Mexico has suspended all trains to the US border because of the “unprecedented” number of migrants hitching a ride — many dying in the process. In the Darien Gap, between Panama and Colombia, 250,000 navigated the very dangerous jungle in 2022 — an annual record at the time. By September 18 this year, that number was 380,000.

When those opposed to mass immigration come to power in both the US and Europe … almost nothing changes. This week, the prime minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, visited Lampedusa with the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. You might remember Meloni from the US media coverage of her as a new version of Mussolini. But she has effectively given up on stopping the influx and is now merely trying to get other EU countries to share the burden of the new arrivals. (Think of Republican governors on the border sending their migrants to northern cities or liberal havens like Martha’s Vineyard).

The trouble, of course, is that this also incentivizes new waves — and is accompanied by the uncomfortable fact that Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia, Poland and Slovakia refuse to take any. This week, for its part, even France declared it would accept none of the migrants who’d just arrived in Lampedusa. Poland’s prime minister said that “the whole Europe, the whole EU, may become Lampedusa if we continue to commit the same old mistakes, the scheme and mechanisms that the Commission proposed.”

The few politicians who have genuinely tried to do something to stop the influx have been hounded by the media (see Trump), or been pursued through the court system — as was the case with Matteo Salvini, as Douglas Murray explains here — or just been incapable of marshaling the political majority required to make a difference (see Trump and the “wall,” again). But at some point, the countries of the West (excepting Japan, of course) have got to confront the fact that they are facing a new paradigm, and the old and trusted methods are not going to work anymore. Check out this quote from this week from a Trumpist:

If you’re going to leave your country, go somewhere else.

But that wasn’t a MAGA maniac. It was the Democratic governor of New York. Is the left going to call her a white supremacist now as well?

That was the core electoral appeal of the “Wall.” It is also the appeal of ramped-up enforcement in the interior, or of barriers in the middle of the Rio Grande, or barbed or razor wire everywhere on the border. The Biden administration’s core policy has not been to do anything serious to stop the influx, but to disguise it — by offering visa applications outside the US, by the new app for migrants to book appointments, and by flying migrants directly from their home countries into the cities of the US, bypassing the Southern border altogether. So far this year, some 221,000 have arrived this way — from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Haiti and Cuba.

The ease with which migrants have managed to get into the US without using the Biden app has begun to make the app irrelevant. Via the indispensable Nick Miroff at the WaPo:

“What is the point of the CBP appointment? My brother surrendered, and he got through. We know too many stories of people who got through without an appointment,” said Yonder Linarez, 28, who was traveling with 10 members of his extended family.

Linarez said he planned to cross the border and turn himself in to U.S. agents Wednesday evening at the border wall. “We tried it, but it took too long,” he said. “If we’ve endured the jungle, robbery and everything else to get here, you think not having an appointment is going to stop us?”

The entire global immigration paradigm has shifted — making the administration’s persistent repetition that “the border is secure” absurd when not risible. But our debate remains mired in past divides, and an utterly gridlocked Congress, incapable of passing a budget, let alone overhauling the immigration system as a whole.

Without massive investment in border protection, mass deportations from the interior of the country (at which many Americans would understandably balk), and a vastly expanded system of immigration courts and judges, the US has simply ceased to be a functional nation-state. We cannot determine who becomes a citizen or not. It is so, so easy to argue that any concern about this is merely proof of racism. It is merely proof that the US federal government is no longer capable of the most basic of functions: the maintenance of its own borders.

There are some readers who will respond to this by saying: good. Let everyone come. We have close to full employment and immigration helps the economy. But this is an argument for a liberal immigration policy, that selects for skilled newcomers, and other worthy applicants. What we have now is a border open to those who can gather in enough numbers to storm the border and overwhelm the entire system, and no functional system to determine who can stay, and only a gesture at deportations.

We also have downward pressure on working-class wages, and increasing frustration by those who face the reality of the influx. It does not surprise me that increasing numbers of working-class black and Hispanic Americans are gravitating to the GOP. As an activist in Chicago’s South Side said recently, “Our specific frustration lies in the continuous and blatant disregard for the safety and overall quality of life for Black residents.” And if liberals and moderate conservatives do not find a way to restore American sovereignty, then the re-election of Trump — or the emergence of someone tougher and more focused than he could ever be — is just a matter of time.


Categories: Immigration

Leave a Reply