The migration issue: a lesson from the US
To European observers of the just concluded U.S. presidential campaign, the American public’s preoccupation with the U.S-Mexico border and especially Republican candidate Donald Trump’s vow to build “the Wall” must seem strange, if not downright irrational. After all, history teaches us the futility of Hadrian’s Wall or the Great Wall of China in stemming unstoppable migratory forces, doesn’t it? Moreover, the flood of undocumented migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border has diminished to a trickle since the Great Recession. Then, too, as many as 40 percent of undocumented immigrants arrive in the U.S. legally, typically at airports, with valid visas that subsequently expire.
Migration simplified by liberals and conservatives alike
Fair-minded observers might ask how this seemingly irrational trope came to be so deeply rooted in America’s political psyche. Yet they should avoid the temptation to blame Trump, however much an embarrassment the vulgar and improbable millionaire populist may be. Indeed, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic are in danger of missing the point. For if millions of Americans are inordinately preoccupied with undocumented immigrants flooding across the Mexican border, they have been conditioned to do so by our political elites – liberals and conservatives alike – who long ago figured out that framing things this way minimized threats posed to them by this genuinely complex and daunting issue. Donald Trump may have mass-marketed this trope, but he hardly invented it.
This conditioning occurred during the 1980’s and 1990’s when record numbers of mostly unskilled, poorly educated immigrants began burdening locally financed schools, hospitals, and social service agencies. While most of these were arriving legally, primarily to join family members already here, increasing numbers had no documents and were streaming across our highly porous border with Mexico. Politicians evaded the issue for as long as possible. But things came to a head in 1994, when by a substantial margin Californians passed a ballot measure denying most government-funded services to the undocumented, including schooling for children in the U.S. illegally.
Defining immigration as illegal and legal
Eventually nullified by the federal courts, Proposition 187 was a wake-up call to politicians across the U.S. Not only did it convince them that immigration was an unavoidable issue, it showed them how to deal with it. For in the aftermath of that political earthquake, elites realized that vociferously opposing illegal immigration allowed them to continue advocating for increasingly high levels of unskilled legal immigration. In this way, members of Congress could be responsive to growing anti-immigrant sentiment, while at the same time mollifying increasingly well-organized immigrant advocacy groups and, especially, employers who had grown dependent on such labor.
Over time, the rhetorical line between legal and illegal immigration grew sharper, with the former confirming Americans’ gratifying self-image as “a nation of immigrants” and the latter increasingly identified with the inevitable problems associated with huge numbers of uneducated, unskilled immigrants – whether legal or illegal – struggling to make it in a post-industrial democracy. And because two-thirds of the undocumented were from Mexico and altogether four-fifths from there or Central America, it was not unreasonable for policymakers to focus on stopping the influx at the Mexican border. And so, billions were spent to construct increasingly secure and sophisticated border barriers. Border patrol agents were given more and better equipment, and their numbers quadrupled.
Stopping migration at the border: politically the least costly alternative
However expensive for taxpayers, the political costs of such border control efforts were much lower than the alternatives for elected officials and policymakers. Notable among these was interior enforcement, including the identification and removal of undocumented immigrants from their families and communities, including raids on work sites. Put simply, such efforts make for wrenching and traumatic media stories that few politicians relish dealing with.
Moreover, the obvious alternative – stiff penalties on employers hiring undocumented workers – would require the creation of secure identification for all Americans, thereby affording employers a way to reliably identify illegal immigrants. Not only has this been resisted by liberals and conservatives alike as the opening to “a national identity card,” it has been unpopular with many employers who regard it as another intrusive governmental regulatory burden. And so the stream of undocumented immigrants continued unabated, at least until the Great Recession.
Beyond defining immigration as legal and illegal
To be sure, negotiating this tricky political terrain has played out differently for Democrats and Republicans. With stronger ties to Hispanics, Democrats have at times felt compelled to defend undocumented immigrants from punitive measures favored by Republicans. The latter regard business, especially small business, as their natural constituency and have therefore been at particular pains to accommodate employers. Moreover, the Republicans’ focus on border enforcement has not only drawn attention away from enforcing immigration law at work sites, it resonates with voters’ concerns about maintaining national sovereignty.
For political elites in the U.S. the lesson of the just completed campaign is that their efforts to define immigration neatly in terms of illegal versus legal immigration have come undone, and now the broader topic of immigration looms on the horizon. For Europeans the point is not merely that immigration is a highly volatile issue, but also a multifaceted, protean one that must be straightforwardly analyzed and squarely addressed.
Peter Skerry is professor of political science at Boston College and Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University.